The Great Indian Spice Box Tradition


Culturallyours Podcast Episode On The Indian Spice Box Culture

The Great Indian Spice Box Tradition

Show Details

In this episode, we discuss the concept of the great Indian Spice box, a cornucopia of color, flavor and memories that you will find in almost every Indian home and kitchen. The Indian Spice box is a way to store all the necessary spices that are typically used in Indian cuisine. Karthika shares some of the most commonly used spices and their importance in Indian cuisine.

Show Notes

Karthika walks us through the great Indian spice box and talks about all the spices that are typically used in most Indian cooking. Spices have certain uses, flavors and add different kinds of taste to most Indian foods. The great Indian Spice box is the perfect way to store and access these commonly used spices in most Indian kitchens. 

The Transcript

I have been wanting to talk about this subject for a very long time now and my chat with Sana Javeri Kadri earlier in the month about her company’s mission to decolonize the spice trade gave me the perfect opportunity to dig deeper into the topic of spices especially as it related to the great Indian Spice box – a cornucopia of color, flavor and memories – that you will find in almost every Indian home and kitchen.

Funny thing though, this is a strange topic for me to chat about for everyone knows I am a terrible cook. I have spoken about this on the podcast before. Even my family has adjusted to the fact that if mom doesn’t burn or blacken the food, it is a good day. However, like a good Indian homemaker, I do know my spices. And perhaps I know my spices simply because of the one of the best systems out there to store, manage and handle spices is the great Indian spice box.

Often passed down from generation to generation, this spice box tradition is quite quintessentially Indian. Although the contents of the box might vary slightly, there are some spices that are universal all throughout India. The spice box is in itself a work of art in my opinion. Simple but an efficient system to store and access the spices that are commonly used in day to day Indian cuisine. The idea is that you set the box right beside your stove so you’re not scrambling and looking for different spice containers while the cooking oil is at its perfect temperature and you can get the right seasoning for your food.

So today on the podcast I want to walk you through the great Indian spice box and talk about all the spices that are typically used in most Indian cooking. I hope you are ready to get a spicy introduction to culture of Indian spices.

Although there are many variations in the market, at the simplest level, the Indian Spice box is a round stainless steel box about 12 inches in diameter and about five inches thick. Inside the box, you will find smaller round cups or containers – about 6 in total – that you can store individual spices. One cup in the center and five cups that neatly fit around it. Are you visualizing this tantalizing box full of color and flavor already?

Modern day kitchens might have glass jars, boxes with a see-through glass cover or some even have mason jars of spices neatly lined up on the kitchen counter. But for me and many households out there – the spice box of the kitchen is that what has been for generations. Here is another funny thing to note about spice boxes. Most of these spice boxes are actually part of the wedding trousseau. Yes, today in most places around the world, couples put up a wedding registry for all the stuff they need to setup a new home. But in India, perhaps even today, many families give the couple all the things they would need for their home. I remember my mom telling me that when she got married her parents gave her everything needed to setup a kitchen in Bombay. My dad was living alone and just had a couple of pots and pan – enough for himself. So, my mom carried everything with her to setup a fully functional kitchen and home. And what I found adorable is that all my mom’s pots and pans actually had her initially engraved in them. I don’t quite know why but that was very normal in most homes in India. Perhaps it is because many families lived together – in-laws, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews – so this was a way to indicate that a new bride was actually bringing some things ito the house – a sort of dowry if you will.

I know I also have pots and pans in my house today that have my initials – KA – engraved in them. Even though functionally they make no sense, I don’t know why, I find a sweet nostalgia when I see my name engraved in steel. Even my spice box has my initials. I feel a strong emotional pull to my parents and my childhood when I see that every time, I open my spice box.

So let’s take a look at some of the spices you will most likely find inside this spice box, shall we?

#1 Turmeric

Turmeric is often called the golden spice. It comes from the turmeric plant and is very common in most Asian/Indian foods. It has a warm, bitter taste and is frequently used to flavor or color curry powders, mustards, butters, and cheeses. But the root of turmeric is also used widely to make medicine. It contains a yellow-colored chemical called curcumin.

It has been used in India for thousands of years as a spice and medicinal herb. And recently, western medicine has started to back up what Indians have known for a long time — it really does contain compounds with medicinal properties. Curcumin is the main active ingredient in turmeric. It has powerful anti-inflammatory effects and is a very strong antioxidant.

I remember when I was young, my mom would give me hot milk with a pinch of turmeric whenever I had a sore throat. As much as I hated the taste of it, it was always made me feel much better the next morning.

#2 Chili Powder

There are quite possibly hundreds of varieties of Indian chilis. As one of the worlds’ foremost consumer of chilis (the first being Mexico) these varieties represent a huge range of tastes and degrees of heat. Chili powder is sometimes known by the specific type of chili pepper used and the spicy peppers find their way into nearly every dish – chutneys and pickles, curries and stir-fries, sometimes even cold drinks.

I personally don’t like the super spicy kind of chilis, much to the disappointment of my family. What I lack in level of tolerance of heat is made up by my 10-year-old son who seems to think if a dish is not spicy, it is not worth eating at all.

My spice box typically contains a blend of chili powder made from Kashmir chili peppers. These chili peppers tend to be more colorful (like paprika) and less spicy so that suits my food pallet well.

#3 Cumin (jeera)

Cumin is perhaps the most used spice in my spice box. I really use it for everything – even when I am making pastas and omelets. I know, it might seem weird but trust me, the flavor it adds to each dish is amazing. I love the taste and flavor of roasted cumin too. Cumin is a spice made from the seeds of the Cuminum cyminum plant. Many dishes use cumin, especially foods from its native regions of the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia. Its flavor has been described as earthy, nutty, spicy and warm. Cumin has also long been used in traditional medicine. Cumin has many evidence-based health benefits. Some of these have been known since ancient times, while others are only just being discovered.

Using cumin as a spice increases antioxidant intake, promotes digestion, provides iron, may improve blood sugar control and may reduce food-borne illnesses. One thing to be a little careful with cumin is that it can burn quite easily and then it tastes really bad and can ruin the final dish. So when you are tempering cumin in oil or ghee, keep an eye on it and perhaps reduce the flame a tad bit.

#4 Mustard Seeds

Mustard seeds which is known as rai in India, are the small round seeds of various mustard plants. The seeds are usually about 1 to 2 millimeters (0.039 to 0.079 in) in diameter and may be colored from yellowish white to black. They are an important spice in many regional foods and may come from one of three different plants: black mustard, brown Indian mustard or white/yellow mustard. They are praised for their antiseptic, antibacterial, carminative and warming properties. They are a source of omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium and prtein.

Some say that rai is one of the oldest spices known. When black mustard seeds are dropped into hot oil or ghee (which is clarified butter) they crackle and immediately turn grey and pop. They develop a nutty taste that is sharp and warming. They can also be dry roasted until they pop and then ground into powder.

Mustard seeds are more common in some Indian cuisines like in the south and the east, while others use more of Fenugreek. But in most spices boxes you will find both almost side by side.

#5 Dhal (Udad)

Although udad dal is technically a lentil and is cooked as a dhal curry is many parts of India, it can also be used to temper and flavor food. This is more typical in south Indian cuisines where a small teaspoon of udal dhal is used as a flavoring spice. It has a somewhat nutty bitter taste and is best used in moderation.

#6 Dry Coriander (whole or powder)

Coriander is a herb as well as a spice. In the leaf form it is often used to garnish cooked food or make green coriander chutney which is very popular in India with sandwiches. All parts of the plant are edible, but the fresh leaves and the dried seeds are a spice are the parts most traditionally used in cooking. Most people perceive the taste of coriander leaves as a tart, lemon/lime taste. The seeds have a lemony citrus flavor when crushed. Coriander is commonly found both as whole dried seeds and in ground form. Roasting or heating the seeds in a dry pan heightens the flavor, aroma, and pungency. Ground coriander seed loses flavor quickly in storage and is best ground fresh.

#7 Salt

I know salt is technically not quite a spice but for me it is such an essential ingredient for cooking that I like to have it handy in my spice box. Sometimes all I add to my food is a salt, a pinch of turmeric and some chili powder. Simple, easy and just a dash of heat that adds the right flavor to my food.

The contents of Indian spice box vary from region to region and even from family to family. In the north, every spice box has ground cumin-coriander powder; in the south, asafetida, a dried gum powder, is a must.

Regardless of what spices go in the spice box, there is no denying it is an integral part of most Indian kitchens.

Leave your comments below

  1. Jay artale says:

    I’d love one of those spice boxes with the little jars inside the bin tin. I have lots of herbs and spices, but there are a few that get uses more frequently and it makes sense to have readily available. During lock down I’ve been cooking and I made a delicious onion and tomato chutney with chili and India spices. It goes delicious with cheese.

  2. Juhi says:

    What’s an Indian kitchen without its spicebox! Along with these spices, I also keep cardamom easily accessible since I like to start my mornings with a strong and fragrant cup of chai.