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Kitchen tales: What does your spice box contain?

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This spice box is usually a lidded stainless steel or plastic container, which holds seven or eight compartments.

Kitchen tales: What does your spice box contain?
Like an artist perfectly poised, the desi kitchen always has this moment when the cook, will be steady, waiting. It can be just a few seconds, till the oil in the pan is at the right temperature. It is all about timing. Like using a paintbrush, the cook will dip into the colourful palette, a spice box and sprinkle its contents to a celebratory crackle in the pan. The birth of a new desi dish.
This colourful spice box is found in all Indian kitchens. From the firm pinches of cumin picked up by a grandmother’s wrinkled fingers to first timer’s reluctant scoops of turmeric using a spoon, the indispensable masala box always gets the meal going.
It is usually a lidded stainless steel or plastic container, which holds seven or eight compartments. These are filled with spice staples – turmeric powder, chilli powder, mustard seeds, cumin seeds and asafoetida.
Apart from the powdered or coarsely ground masalas, the box also holds whole spices –pieces of rolled cinnamon, green pods of cardamom, dried bay leaves, bouncy black peppercorns, cloves and strands of bright mace. The box has daily dealings and is always stored close at hand. Since spices tend to lose their flavour and aroma rapidly, only a small amount of spices is kept in the box, and this is replenished once or twice a month.
The spice box is also home to antioxidants and sources of vitamins, and the splash of these spices in hot oil or ghee, the tadka helps bring out their medicinal benefits. Fenugreek, turmeric, cinnamon, coriander seeds, cardamom, caraway seeds, they all are tiny capsules holding anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.
Every kitchen has a spice box, but it can differ depending on where you are. If you are visiting relatives up north, you will find the box filled with the usual and some ajwain (caraway seeds), amchoor (dried mango powder) and sonth (dried ginger powder). If you go further east, the spice box holds spices amenable to cooking with mustard oil, like the Bengali kitchen must-have, panch phoron (the five-spice mix of fennel, nigella, cumin, mustard and fenugreek seeds).
The North-eastern spice box has the brightest turmeric, the Lakadong variety alongside dried, powdered seeds of winged prickly ash, dried long pepper, and chilli flakes from the fiery chillies found locally like the Raja Mircha or Bhoot jholokia. The Maharashtrian spice box has all the usual and a large batch of asafoetida and tiny bits of grey dagadphool, a type of dried lichen, which gives a smoky aroma to the dish. Going further south, you will find an assortment of dals that also go in the first tadka. The urad dal that is added for the extra crunch in a runny curd rice.
There are new additions of oregano, chilli flakes and dried basil, to go with the pasta dishes that are now ubiquitous. The Indian kitchen today is a mix of old and new, but the spice box is still the quick, handy go-to. There will always be the ready paste or packet of masalas, but the magic of tossing up, a fresh tadka is a moment worth savouring.
Sharon Fernandes is a journalist based in Delhi. 
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