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When a 14-year-old is left to their own devices, the possibilities in the kitchen are endless.
One day, when my mum was at work when I was this age, I wanted to impress her with my cooking. Of course, not knowing what I was doing, I used every single spice in our kitchen in unmentionable quantities. Let's say that no one ate my creation that night, and I stayed away from spices for a very long time. Because that's the thing about spices: if you use too much, you can't salvage the dish; if you use too little, you've got something bland.
It's essential to know each spice. It's also imperative to know how much is needed in each dish and what spice combinations work. If that's not enough, it's also crucial to know precisely when you need to add spices to a dish.
For the uninitiated, the world of spice can be a daunting prospect. That's why the masala dabba or spice tin is an essential part of the Indian kitchen. This spice box can be a box or a round, steel tin which holds small, round containers and a measuring spoon. The box is secured tightly with a lid to keep the ingredients fresh and prevent spillage.
There's no hard and fast rule on what to include in a masala dabba because it ultimately depends on the region of India that you're from. The spice box of my mother, who hails from North India, contains different spices to those in the spice box of my mother-in-law, who's from the country's west. However, both spice boxes create delicious meals.
While we use many kinds of spices and many dishes have distinct spice blends, the masala dabba typically holds only what one would use daily. Not only is it convenient to have one on your kitchen table so that spices within arm's reach, it's also a nifty travel companion if you cook when you travel. We recently stayed at an Airbnb and used my spice box like I do at home.
However, if you are like me, you may want two – one for whole spices like cardamon, cinnamon, pepper, cumin and mustard seeds and the like, and another one to keep powdered spices, like garam masala and red chilli, coriander and tumeric powder, to roast from scratch.
Regardless of what people keep in their masala dabba or how they use it, it's a part of our cultural heritage and no Indian kitchen is complete without it.