Thursday, 10 May 2012

A Dabbler’s Delight: Boxed Masalas

A Dabbler’s Delight: Boxed Masalas
I meet lots of people who love Indian cuisine, but they don’t make it at home.  When they ask me for recipes, I’m hesitant to suggest most homemade masalas, because the ingredients would be just too expensive and the effort is just too time consuming, for someone who is just dabbling around in the kitchen. After all, not everybody's ocd, like me!  Besides, it makes me sad to think of all those neglected spices languishing in the cupboard, gathering dust and cobwebs, after being used only once, before the experimenting cook drops to the kitchen floor from exhaustion, mumbling, twenty three ingredients?  Did the recipe really have to call for twenty-three ingredients?  For many, this type of cuisine is so complicated and expensive that attempting a homemade masala is too discouraging when just learning about Indian cuisine. 

If you’re in this wannabe category and don’t have the time commitment to the homemade, the boxed masalas will be a wonderful boost to your cooking ego.  I'm not talking about supermarket curry powders, but small boxes of pre-made masala, available in the Indian aisles of some grocery stores, and in Indian grocery stores. 
The packages always give a rough guide of what they can be used for, and you can usually go a little further if you’re adventurous.  I’ve used masalas labelled ‘for fish’ on vegetables, and for ‘lamb’ on fish, and haven’t gone horribly wrong.  I wouldn’t cross over to a masala for chai (tea) to be used in a savoury dish, or a savoury masala to be used in a dessert, although there can be some weird exceptions.  Go with caution if the picture on the box shows a meat dish and you’re making a dessert, or vice versa!

Do read the ingredient list.  If the second listed ingredient is flour (atta), or cornstarch, or other obvious filler, put it back at once.  Make sure it has no monosodium glutamate (msg), and that any kind of sugars, including any word ending in “ose”, as in sucrose and glucose, are at the very bottom of the list, if listed at all.  Also look for a best before date.  If it doesn’t have one, make sure the box doesn’t look faded or dusty, because the spices will have lost some of their pungency.  These dry masalas won’t go bad, as such, unlike any sauce you might buy in a jar.  On the other hand, the jarred curry pastes are useful, but often are quite high in oils and sugars.  Read the labels carefully!
In the meantime, here’s a very rough guide to the spices commonly found in a masala that you may not be familiar with:

Scene of the crime, if a boxed masala is a crime...
Chilli (if it’s listed first, it will be spicy hot)
Cumin (slightly bitter, nutty, used in many cuisines)
turmeric (the yellow stuff, a little bitter and astringent, but very healthy!)
cardamom (the green is aromatic and sweet, the dark is more bitter)
mace (similar to nutmeg)
fennel (like licorice)
dry mango (tangy)
pomegranate seeds (tangy)

fenugreek (intense, usually the spice most Westerners associate with curry)
There will always be some spices you won’t recognize, but be brave and trusting!  These boxes contain delicious ingredients chosen by good cooks!  The package directions will encourage you to use the entire box for one dish, but take that advice judiciously.  Add a tablespoon at a time, and taste, if you can.  Usually three tablespoons is enough.

The combination of spices is like the instruments in an orchestra, or even the notes in a melody.  You want a good variety to make it interesting and pleasurable.  Just because a spice is bitter, it doesn’t mean the dish will be—instead, that tiny bit of bitterness is like the low note in a song, while a sweeter spice like fennel is the high note.  Most Indian dishes use some kind of tangy ingredient as well. 
These boxed masalas come in mighty handy, even for the ocd types like me, who sometimes need to cook something in a hurry, without a lot of fuss.  I’ll often supplement the boxed masalas with a few basic spices found in most kitchens. Who doesn’t keep a cinnamon stick or two handy?  Along with that, I’d strongly recommend cumin seed, which is fabulous and used for a wide variety of cuisines, fennel, and a few green cardamom pods, which will come in handy if only for tea.  

Buy in an Indian grocery to save!

Along with these masalas, you’ll still need to cook with basic flavours such as fresh chillies, garlic, ginger, onion and perhaps a bit of butter or cream.  

If you’re new to this type of cooking, buy your spices in small quantities, or they’ll go stale if not used up within a few months. Or you can split the spices with several friends who are also in an experimental mode.  
These words of advice are for newbies, of course, so if you're an experienced cook, please add a few tips of your own!


  1. I like...
    I like the mortar and pestle...MDH masalas are good and they are the most familiar brand
    PS u can use chai masala in savoury dishes too...just at the last minute...lovely fragrance and flavors...
    while u are at it try shahi cumin

  2. Hi Sweet Shalini, thanks for your comments. I will dare the chai masala this way. So you add the black cumin at the last minute too?

    Any sightings on those muffin pans yet? Let me know when they arrive.