Gardens / Indian Food

Indian food – the essentials

Masala Dabba

A Masala Dabba, found in many Indian homes, is a circular lidded tin with seven individual lidded tins inside. The spices I keep in my tin are the basic spices that Archana recommends

  • Asafetida (Hing)
  • Cumin (Jeera)
  • Black mustard seeds (Mohi/Rai)
  • Ground turmeric (Haidi)
  • Kashmiri red chili powder (sukhi lal Kashmiri mirch)
  • Coriander (Dhania)
  • Garam Masala

Garam Masala

Garam Masala literally translates as warm spice mix. The Garam Masala recipe I use is also taken from

  1. Black Peppercorns (Kali Mirch) – These berries which grow on climbing vines are native to southern India. The unripe green berries are harvested when they ripen and turn red and are then dried to what we commonly see in grocery store. Black peppercorns, impart intense aroma, depth and heat to foods.
  2. Green Cardamom Pods (Elaichi) – A sweet and aromatic spice that is critical spice for curries and pulaos. I like roasting and grinding whole green pods for additional flavour and also saves time from having to take the seeds out.
  3. Cinnamon (Dalchini) – Cassia Bark that is grown in India is the traditional cinnamon used in Indian cooking and is similar to cinnamon sticks. It adds earthy flavours to meat and curries and is essential in making spice blends. Many times I use the easier-to-find cinnamon sticks in recipes, but if you do purchase cassia bark, it can be substituted.
  4. Cloves (Laung) – These aromatic flower buds are harvested from the evergreen clove tree. They lend a slightly sweet yet pungent aroma to Indian cuisine.
  5. Black Cumin Seeds (Shah Jeera) – With anise-like flavours, black cumin seeds are milder than regular cumin seeds. Often confused with nigella seeds or caraway seeds, shah jeera has a smoky, earthy taste. In lieu of shah jeera, regular cumin seeds can be substituted.

Pro Tips:

  1. Roast the spices individually on medium heat, stirring them frequently until they start to release aromas. Allow the spices to completely cool down before grinding them.
  2. Roast and grind the whole green cardamom pods. No need to discard the seeds and they skin also adds additional flavours and aroma to the masala
  3. Cinnamon – For the full flavour, avoid pre ground cinnamon powder and use whole cinnamon sticks instead. Tip – Gently hammer the whole cinnamon stick with a pestle and break it into smaller pieces. This step will make it easier to roast and grind the cinnamon.
  4. Shah Jeera – Also known as black cumin seeds, these are available in most Indian grocery stores. You can substitute regular cumin seeds if you do not have shah jeera on hand.

Best way to grind the spices:

  1. Archana ( has an Indian brand mixer grinder that comes with a small chutney jar. It has low blades that help grinding smaller amounts of spices to a fine powder.
  2. A small coffee/spice grinder works well. The stainless steel grinder bowls can be washed thoroughly to remove the spice aromas.
  3. Use a mortar and pestle. It will take longer time to ground the spices evenly but is a good old way that works.

It is worth noting that some households have more than one Masala Dabba, each of the individual tins filled with a different spice. Also, many people have personalised their Garam Masala and can contain up to 20 different spices, sometimes more.

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