I have early memories of going to the market with my mom with bags of gahu, wheat for atta. There was a chakki (mill) there run by two men. My mom would pass the bag of wheat over to one guy who would pour it into a large metal funnel. A few strategic taps and a drum would be on a roll and within a few minutes we had freshly milled flour. The guy at the other end would scoop the flour into bags. Occasionally puffs of flours would rise up from the pouring process, bathing the entire interior of the shop in a milk cloudy haze. Fine as the best talcum powder, I can still remember how warm those bags would be, filled as they were with the still warm flour. The machine, the process; all of it fascinated me.
While waiting with mom for the flour, I noticed other people walking up with considerably smaller bags, even tins. The contents of those tins were tossed into a much tinier machine and were ground within seconds. Mom explained this was the masala mill, used by people to make their own masalas or ground spices. Sometimes a person would walk up with a bag and walk away with scarlet-hued dusted sack. These were folks getting their very own chilli powder ground. The gold flecked ones were generally garam masala.
My mother didn’t make her own spice blends or grind spice powders here. She didn’t need to. Truth is, what was available at the specialist shops was made fresh, local and extremely well. But my formative years were a time when the older Bombay was on the verge of a leap forward. There was a lot to reconcile between the new and old ways. With the advent of packaged flours, the chakkiwalla became less crucial to wives and mothers everywhere. The local spice guy? He, however, continued to occupy an important spot.
It’s no secret that Indian food stands and falls on the strength of spices. These fragrant seeds and leaves have a long history deeply intertwined with that of Indian people. Over the ages, various singular spices were combined into potent combinations that as a whole were greater than the sum of their parts. There is a variety of regional cuisine woven into the richly-hued tapestry that is Indian food. Each regional cuisine boasts of its own distinct set of spice blends and mixes. These are further developed and combined with ingredients like coconut or onions to make spice paste blends which are essential to the curry, the quintessentially Indian deal.
I have always been fascinated by spice. Freshness is key to good spices and I have often been disappointed by lackluster aged purchases in this department. I’ve fooled around in the past with mixing various spices in my mad doctor way to see what happens . But it was when I acquired My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King that I got focused about it and made my first proper, nameworthy blend – dhansak masala.
Dhansak refers to the grains and vegetables that go into making this lentil curry type dish. It is one of the fundamental dishes of Parsi cuisine. I grew up in an open Parsi Colony and many of my friends including my BFF were Parsis, so my exposure to their wonderful food was ample. Somehow though, I didn’t learn too much about it beyond the fact that I loved it. As I looked around for inspiration, I found this book, written by an immigrated Parsi who lives here in the Bay Area. I’m loving reading through this book even though I know much of the history she speaks about.
One of the first things you find in the book is a section on spice blends and pastes where I found directions this dhansak masala. I loved the aromatherapy on offer when I put all the whole spices in a skillet and toasted them on a low flame. For those few minutes, being in my kitchen was just as heady as being in India’s best spice shop.
Parsi Dhansak Masala
Adapted lightly from My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King
Makes about a pint
This spice mix is also called Dhana Jiru (coriander-cumin) according to Ms. King. With two kinds of cumin and a large quantity of coriander seeds I see exactly why.
Coriander seeds – 1 cup
Turkish bay leaves – 1/4 cup
Cumin seeds – 1/4 cup
Dried red chillies – 6 to 7
White poppy seeds – 1 tbsp
Cinnamon sticks – 2
Black peppercorns – 2 tbsp
Cloves – 1 tbsp
Green cardamom pods – 1 tbsp (shell pods before use)
Black cardamom – 4
Caraway seeds – 1 tsp
Black cumin seeds – 1 tsp
Fenugreek seeds – 1 tsp
Turmeric powder – 1/2 tsp
Saffron – a pinch
Ground Mace – 1/4 tsp
Nutmeg – 1
– In a heavy bottom pan or skillet dry-roast (without oil) the coriander, bay leaves, both cumin seeds, red chillies, white poppy seeds, cinnamon, peppercorns, cloves, both cardamoms, caraway seeds and fenugreek seeds for a few minutes, just until you can see them start to toast. They musn’t brown. Your nose is a good indicator for this. When you get the full aroma of roasted spice is when you turn off the heat.
– Move off the heat and allow to cool.
– Place mixture in a spice grinder along with the last four ingredient and grind to powder.
– Press the powder through a sieve.
– Store in a tightly capped bottle in a cool dark place.
Will keep for a while but will lose freshness and potency as it keeps.
I’m thrilled with the way this blend has turned out. I’d like to hear what you think too. So I’m giving away two small bottles of it to two interested cooks. I’ll be picking the winners based on a random number generator. In order to enter, leave me a comment here and telling me what your favourite Indian dish is.
I’ll be posting the recipe for dhansak next week which is when I will announce the winner (next Monday 19th). So you will also have a recipe on how to use the spice blend. In my opinion though, break tradition and use it whatever way you choose. It is, in its essence, an elaborate form of garam masala.
*At this time, this giveaway is open to residents of the continental US only.*