Every accomplished cook has to go through that ritual by fire, namely making your own masalas. In fact you are not accomplished, if you resort to using store bought, ready-made powders and mixes, and pass off the results as your own. Of course, anyone who is starting out or is pressed for time has had to fall back on ready made spice powders, but a real connoisseur is one who will take the pains and efforts to slow roast the whole spices to perfection and make their own, unique signature combos.
In Marathi homes like mine, masala making was an important activity. For this kala or goda masala as it was called, made it’s way to a number of curries or lentil preparations (amti, sambhar). It would many a times start with sun-drying the spices for a few days in summer, followed by slow roasting, sometimes with a dash of oil. Those who made big batches of the spices would get it fine grounded in special mills. I also remember some (wandering) women coming to our housing societies with big mortar-pestles (M-P) and offer to grind the said sun-dried masalas in summer, right under your supervision.
My first foray with masala making came under mom’s supervision. She advised the ratios and proportions, and I followed her instructions to the T. I was first asked to clean the coriander seeds, as there would be small sticks or stalks, and dry roast them. This usually formed the base of our masala. Then came different whole spices – cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, cumin. Next in even smaller proportions came relatively unknowns like dagadphool, patharphool, mace, dry ginger, bay leaves. The last to be roasted would be dried coconut. Sometimes mom would advise to leave this out, if making a big batch of the masalas, as the coconut would turn rancid soon, leaving an after taste in the masala.
For days after the masala making, simple curries and dals would perk up, as if fresh and invigorated – till the taste settled on taste buds and we became used to the latest batch. For many such days, I remember my father topping the sadha varan (cooked toor dal) with the newly made masala, and adding a generous dousing of kachha tel (raw, unheated peanut oil). This would be polished off with bhakris. So used to we were of these home-made masalas, that on occasions when Bedekar, Everest and later MTR made their way to our kitchen, we would turn up our noses, and implore mom to quickly work her magic.
I, too, started by relying on mom-made masalas initially. In fact, every time I travelled abroad, this masala would first make its way to my suitcase. After marriage, two such packets were safely tucked away – one from the mother and the other from the mother-in-law. And that was how we termed our lunches and dinners as Nagpuri or Hyderabadi, depending on who’s mothers’ masala was used – mine or the Scientists’!
But somewhere last year I discovered the magic of making your own fresh masalas. And truly magic it was! The roasting of coriander seeds, methi (fenugreek) seeds, pepper corns, cumin heralded the coming of sambhar or rasam. The whole house would be filled with this delightful, anticipatory aroma, and visitors would know the dish of the day before they set their eyes on it. It was worth the effort, as the said sambhar and rasam would not only be lapped up at our Indian get togethers in Taipei, but there would be scrambling for left overs which made for dinner or next day’s lunch, leaving a clean and empty pot to be taken back home. The true success of a good cook is an empty plate or pot, and I witnessed that aplenty, when I ladled out my dishes made with freshest masalas.
While sambhar/amti was what I began with, I soon graduated to making other more complicated ones at home. I would browse through websites and blogs, scope out the whole spices and ingredients from the sole Indian store, and the newly discovered Burmese street (there is something about putting these whole spices in your shopping basket – knowing they are going make your kitchen warm and inviting, and your food nourishing and tasty – I can linger for hours in the whole spices aisle, much to the Scientist’s chagrin), and make my own variations depending on whether or not I had managed to get hold of the listed ingredients. So soon followed bisi bele bhat masala, pulihora masala, pav bhaji masala, bharli wangi (stuffed eggplant) masala, loncha (pickle) masala, pudchutney (a tangy, dry chutney – the perfect accompaniment to idli–dosa) and metkut (a Maharashtrian favourite dried powder which goes well with soft, mushy rice and ghee) – all home made and made from scratch. Practice makes (wo)man perfect, and thus I became adept at making and storing these. While it was better to finish off and not store leftovers, and make fresh masalas the every time, it was not always possible. Taipei weather meant that these would have to be carefully stored only in the refrigerator, or I would have some fine specimens for study under the microscope – it has known to happen!! I also learnt which needed to finely ground in the mixer and which were better off coarsely crushed in the mortar pestle. The beautiful wooden M-P that the Scientist had procured on a visit to Jiofen was, and is abundantly put to use. With repeated attempts has come the knowledge of right proportions, now I don’t need to know the exact tablespoons or measuring cups needed for each masala – a bit of this, and little more of that is enough for the spice powders to be just so.
This foray into masala making was not without it’s usual share of disasters and blunders. One such was the use of coconut. Since fresh coconut is not available in Taipei, and the Mangalorean sambhar masala called for it, I decided to use the trick of soaking the dessicated coconut in hot water for sometime before grinding. That really did it in. Perhaps the coconut was old, or the water was too hot, the sambhar tasted quite rancid and bitter. While the Scientist meekly gulped it down, he asked me not to repeat this experiment the next day we were to have guests! Lesson learnt.
I had read a post once long back on the habits you should pick up from your grandmother. One such was make food from scratch. Then perhaps I didn’t need to make any food at all. But now as I run and manage my little household, this one habit brings me immense satisfaction. Internet, blogs and cooking websites have perhaps eliminated the need of a wise old woman who would dispense the family heirloom recipes but the roasted aroma of fragrant spices, their coarse and fine textures and the happy faces that greet you after such hearty meals make you feel so grandmother-ly, though I am a long way off from being a grandmother!!