She reaches in the cabinets frantically knocking pots and pans over, and I start to shrivel in my chair. Moments later the crackling starts and she squints her eyes as she drops the curry leaves into the pan simultaneously reaching for the oven fan and a plate to cover the spices dancing in the oil. She places a lid on the metal container and puts it back in the drawer until tomorrow morning when the aromas of cumin and mustard seeds will wake us up before the sky begins to be tinted in red and orange. And as much as I thought we were alone in this ritual, our Indian community quickly taught me otherwise as I found my voice and began to compare my trials and tribulations growing up as first generation Indian Americans. I was not alone in the customary dinner menu of shak (vegetable curry), rotli/roti (indian bread), daal (lentil soup), and baath (rice) that would inevitably make it to the table 7 days a week. Spoiled? Definitely, though I felt unfortunate and dramatically underprivileged. Brat? 100%.
It’s amazing what we learn to appreciate when Mommy isn’t there to selflessly shower you with the food. Shame on me for being so ungrateful! Amongst the endless list of things I refused to learn when my Mom would patiently try to teach me, cooking Indian food is the one I regret the most. The sweet lady had a box of all of the kitchen essentials ready for me to go anywhere I moved. All 5 times since I left the house when I was 18 to go to college. How lucky am I? Over the years I’ve learned to utilize the different things she had in the box but one thing sticks out the most. Holding it makes me feel like Mom is standing right next to me as we wait for the pan of oil to get hot. Hers looks worn and dull but full of memories and recipes. Maybe when I have children they will remember me standing over the stove with it in my left hand…who am I kidding! I could never be as perfect as her!
The beautiful masala dabba (spice box) is symbolic of me, my mom, home cooks, chefs, and all the kitchens it serves. While there are many spices that trend through out almost every Indian household, the most commonly used ones will be found in a cook’s masala dabba. It becomes personal to anyone loyal to their dabba. Cumin, mustard seeds, turmeric, coriander powder, cumin powder, dry mango powder, and chili powder are the building blocks of any Gujurati dish making it a staple in my Mom’s dabba. I, on the other hand, remember exactly the moment I filled my dabba for the first time. I pulled out the shiny metal container and ripped the sticker on the lid off disappointed at how it already didn’t look like Mom’s. My kitchen, loosely stocked with miscellaneous spices, was hardly equipped with what I needed to make it just like hers. Determined to make some progress to be like my Mom, I filled my dabba with what I used as I taught myself to make Indian food.
Being that I am more confident in cooking French cuisine- having graduated from a Culinary School with a French curriculum- my dabba gives me confidence when I open it and see the foundation I’ve selected to help me learn. My dabba has cumin, coriander powder, mustard seeds, turmeric powder, mild and hot chili powder, and a mix of cinnamon, clove, and cardamom. It isn’t just like Mom’s but it has her love written all over it.
Do you have a masala dabba? What’s in your?