6:47 AM EST
Masala Dabba | मसाला डब्बा
Clockwise from top: amchur, turmeric, cardamom, mustard seed, garam masala, ginger and cumin seed (center)
I make regular pilgrimages to Jersey City’s concentration of Indian shops and restaurants known as India Square to pick up colorful spices, new-to-me fruits and vegetables, fresh paneer and whatever else catches my eye. The point being: just because you don’t belong to an ethnic community doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy its bounty. More often then not your curiously will be met with welcome and your kitchen will be newly stocked with flavorful and interesting ingredients to experiment with.
But where to begin? Many Indian cooks have a Masala Dabba (मसाला डब्बा) or spice box containing their most often used spices. And I have one, too. Here’s what I have inside:
Amchur (आम्चूर). A dry spice made from sundried unripe mango. It has a delightful piquant flavor. A great addition to dal and many other classic Indian dishes.
Turmeric (haldi; हल्दी). This spice gives many Indian dishes their striking yellow color but turmeric also lends food an earthy, peppery, minerally flavor.
Cardamom (ilaichi; इलायची). Used in both Indian and Scandinavian cuisine (who knew?), cardamom has an resinous, piney, slightly gingery flavor. Green cardamom is most common though black – sometimes called brown – cardamom also exists. The latter has a slight smoky flavor imparted from its particular drying method.
Black Mustard Seed (sarson; सरसों). Sarson refers to mustard in general and rai (राई) is the word for mustard seeds. These little babies are used all the time in Indian cooking. A little dry roasting really brings out their slightly sour earthy heat.
Garam Masala (गरम मसाला). Translating literally to “hot mixture” garam masala is not a single spice but blend of various spices typically including ground cumin, ground coriander, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Kashmiri garam masala notably contains fennel.
Ginger Powder (saunth; सौंठ). Earthy and spicy, ginger powder has a certain “incense” quality whereas fresh ginger is slightly fruity.
Cumin Seed (jeera; जीरा). Don’t mistake cumin for caraway – they look very similar. Another earthy, warming spice that is just as much at home in an Indian curry as in a Texas-style chile con carne or in a Mexican salsa.
A few additional spices not in my Masala Dabba that I use a lot in Indian cooking include asafetida (hing; हींग), coriander (a.k.a. cilantro) seed (dhania; धनिया), fenugreek (methi; मेथी), and onion seeds (kalaunji; खसखस), also known as nigella or black cumin and not actually the seeds of onions.