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« The King of Sauces, Catalan-Style | Main | Barcelona Eats »

The Spice Bowl

Everyone has a skeleton in their closet. Mine just happens to be a spice bowl in my cupboard.

It looks innocent enough; it's a big glass bowl probably intended for family-style salads, and inside are little bags of spices I've been collecting over the years for my Indian food experiments. The bowl used to be a box (or, more accurately, a tupperware container), but as the contents kept growing, I had to upgrade to the bowl.

The problem is that I'm highly ashamed of my spice bowl. In fact, probably very few of my friends have ever even seen it. If I'm cooking while they're around, I make sure I have all the spices I need neatly laid out on the counter before they arrive. I keep it stowed away in the pot cupboard, high on a shelf that nothing else of importance is stored on. Nobody ever looks there unless they have a reason to.

The fact is that I used to have a perfectly reasonable number of spices, a packet of cinnamon and some cloves, nutmeg, perhaps some curry and some cayenne pepper. They hung out in the front of my cupboard, next to the tea and sugar and ketchup, just like everyone else's spices. Then I discovered my love of Indian food, and things changed.

The few who have seen The Bowl ask why I don't simply get a spice rack. I just laugh. There were 42 spices in my bowl at last count. Have you ever seen a spice rack that holds 42 spices? Didn't think so.

I'm not sure why I'm so ashamed of it. Maybe it's the knowledge that I possess more spices than most Indian cooks that makes me feel just a teeny bit obsessive. Maybe it's the fact that I've never been to India, and I cook from cookbooks and buy my spices at the Middle Eastern shop on the corner that makes me feel as if I'm somehow cheating. Maybe it's just the complete chaos inside the bowl and the excessive amount of time it takes me to find what I need. I don't know. I just know that knowledge of its existence is not freely handed around.

Many of the spices in that bowl represent memories, souvenirs from trips I've taken and places I used to live. Many have crossed oceans with me. Spices aren't cheap, after all, and some I use so rarely that they stick around for years. No matter where I live, however, I can't imagine one of my cupboards not having that penetrating mixture of dusky, spicy, slightly stale aromas. Those spices have almost become part of the family.

Maybe someday I'll figure out what it is about that bowl that compels me to hide it. But for now, as long as the food I make with those spices is so tasty, does anyone really need to know?


Masala Chai, Perfected

For one large or two small servings:
1 cup water
3/4 cup (180ml) whole milk
1/4 cup (60ml) evaporated milk or light cream
1 teaspoon loose black tea
1 (2-inch/5cm) cinnamon stick, broken
5 green cardamom pods, slightly crushed
5 whole cloves
1 (1/4-inch/1/2cm) slice fresh ginger, bashed a bit
2 whole peppercorns, slightly crushed
(optional additions, including mace, star anise, nutmeg or vanilla - not traditional but nice for a change)
sugar, to taste

Bring everything to a boil in a heavy-bottomed pot, then reduce the heat to medium low. For the first few minutes, you'll have to monitor the pot, taking it off the heat if necessary, because the violently bubbling brew will want to escape its confines and flood your stovetop. After that stage has passed, however, you should just let it quietly simmer for about half an hour. The longer you wait, the better it will be! At the end you should have just over a cup of liquid, depending on how long it's been boiling. Strain the liquid into cups to serve.

A word of warning: it's quite rich. Of course you can substitute lowfat versions for anything above. Or you could just serve it for dessert!

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Reader Comments (17)

interesting to note how cooks like urself have a protective kind of vanity about their cupboards/ spicebowls... the idea never struck me being more of a wardrobe kind of girl...

i sal(one more l?)ut(or one more t?)e ur blog for being elegant n stylish! would u mind putting that recipe for the amazingly comforting spinach-cheese-dip-kinda-thing?
(maybe u would make 10 kilos of it for our wedding?) (please..)

love n kisses! googs.
April 9, 2005 | Unregistered Commentergoogs
Hmmm... too many spices! You must be joking. I visited the Indian city Lucknow (known for its spices) a couple of years back and they have a famous kebab there known as 'Tunda kebab' (named after the inventor of the recipe) which claims to have 160 spices in it. Well it did taste like a very spicy kebab, although I can't vouch for being able to distinguish 160 different tastes. (How many different kind of taste buds does a human tongue have anyway?)

There is no doubting the fact that spices do tend to give Indian food their character, but I've always felt that their role in Indian food has been a bit exaggerated by the West (Tunda kebab not withstanding). Most Indians won't be able to distinguish more than 5-6 spices and that's the number of spices that you would usually find in an Indian mother's cupboard.

Having said that, Indian cuisine tends to vary a lot based upon where you are in India. And had Mr. Tunda been alive, he would have personally told you, you've got nothing to be ashamed of. Get that bowl out where we can all see it!
April 9, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterIndian Singh
Thanks guys, I love feedback! As for salute, it was spelled perfectly, and as for the spinach cheese dip, I would be happy to post a recipe for it. And you might even be able to convince me to make it for your wedding...

As for the 160 spices, I agree that there's no way the human palate could make out that many different flavors in one bite of kebab. I'm also not surprised that the typical Indian mother would only have 5 or 6 in her cupboard, but those 5 or 6 would probably be completely different from region to region, no? My problem is that since I don't claim allegiance to one particular place, I am compelled to experiment with food from all over India, and consequently my repertoire of 'basic' spices is enormous! That said, there are packages of spices I've never even opened, having seen them at the shop yet not having found a recipe that uses them (e.g. amchoor powder and kalonji seeds)...

But really, thanks for your support and I'm already feeling better about getting the truth about my bowl out in the open. Maybe soon I'll actually be confident enough to let you meet it ;)
April 10, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
Hi Melissa! Found your blog through my referencing blogs -list - I love it! And I confess too, mine is not a bowl, more like a whole shelf - okay, so a shelf and a half!:-)
April 17, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterZarah Maria
Hi Zarah Maria! I'm so glad to hear that I have company in the Spice Hoarders Anonymous category! For me it's almost become a matter of pride - if I come across a recipe that uses a spice I don't have, I feel defeated, somehow - like the recipe has won... My goal is to one day be able to survey all my cookbooks and say, there's not a spice listed in there that I don't have in my cupboards! Okay, so maybe I am even more obsessive than I thought...
Anyhow, thanks for the comment :)
April 17, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
I have you all beat -- no, I'm not a competitive person, but I just counted my spices, I have way too many! One upcoming task is to throw out those which are no longer fresh, aromatic, or pungent. I order mine from The Spice House (www.thespicehouse.com), it's a great store, you should check it out. Even worse than my current spice collection is my cookbook collection. I can't seem to stop buying them. Like I'll ever make enough food to justify owning so many books? Guess there could be worse obsessions to admit to...
April 21, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJessica
Hi Jessica, thanks for the link! It's funny that you wrote in today, because I just found an internet supplier of (organic!) herbs and spices here in the UK (http://www.steenbergs.co.uk/), and I impulsively ordered four new spices: lavender, rose petals, ethiopian berbere and ras-el-hanout. So up that total to 46... I'm curious, do you, like me, have spices you've never actually used, and if so, which? I sense an upcoming challenge, to find recipes that will allow me to put those underappreciated bags at the bottom of my bowl to good use...
April 21, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
I just looked in my cupboard and found two un-used spices: Garam Masala from Harvey Nichols (purchased Feb 2002) and Miami Spice (funny?), some spice mixture given to me by one of my students (I teach cooking). Almost all of my spices are in jars, except a few blends that I've ordered from The Spice House (i.e. Pickling spice). I go through lots of ground cinnamon (I put it in everything), Telicherry peppercorns (they seem to mysteriously disappear from my pepper-grinder every day), and cumin. I love lavender, use it mostly in an Herbes-de-Provence mixture. I came across a really neat website the other day (www.capeherb.com), you should check it out, very interesting. I tend to buy spices and herbs when I travel, thinking that I'd never find them once I get home (that's never true). I also buy lots of jarred preserves, mustards, confitures, etc. I taste them and then attempt to reproduce them...it keeps me busy.
April 21, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJessica
Melissa, I would love to try your masala chai, I have been looking for a good recipe! And btw, you can never have too many spices in your kitchen, that's my motto :).
May 21, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterOsloFoodie
Your spice bowl dilemma reminds me of an awesome trick I saw on Good Eats with Alton Brown. He had a metal sheet screwed in one of his cabinet drawers and kept all of his herbs/spices in small (palm-sized) metal containers that hung on the sheet by a magnet. I think I've seen similar ideas in Ikea and Williams Sonoma. That might be a great trick for you, especially if you have a pantry door.
January 11, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLynn
Hey! I found your blog through Elise's Simply Recipes.

I just wanted to say that if your spices are mixes or blends and they are open and are over 2-3 years old, consider trashing them and getting yourself a spanking new set of spices. When spices are ground and mixed in blends, they tend to lose their flavor quicker than whole spices. The exposure to air and moisture adds to this and sometimes, you could even end up with stuff growing on the spice blends. The latter depends entirely on the humidity and temperatures that prevail.

That said, I have never made chai with evaporated milk or cream. I am considering adding this to the menu when we celebrate my friend's 50th birthday with a special vegetarian Indian dinner in a couple of weeks.
May 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterManisha
Love your blog. Such an evocative name, I agree with Manisha. I grind most of my spices just before I need them. Ready blends don't work as well. But most Indian homes have a closed spice box next to the stove with an array of six or seven cups inside with the most frequently used spices. I have coriander, cumin,red chilli, turmeric,pepper,(all ground) and whole black mustard and whole cumin in mine. The powdered spices are decanted or ground fresh into the little cups and since there's only a small amount in them, to be used up quickly, they don't lose their flavour. If you don't cook Indian food regularly I'd suggest you keep most of your spices whole and use a coffee grinder to blend them when you feel like doing Indian food.
August 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSheila
I know I'm posting very late to this but I had to add my love of The Spice House. We live 20 minutes from the one in Milwaukee and there is nothing better than the heavenly smells when you open the door! As for the number of spices I own, I am not sure. I have a shelf full right where I do most of the cooking and then there is the pantry. I call it the spice annex. 2 big baskets stuffed full of more spices. Can't wait to try the chai!
September 13, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterWeaver

I used to have a similar collection of spices, but donated them to friends when I left home to travel in Asia for a year. Like yours, my source for them were the Asian and Middle-Eastern stores, so I ended up with large bags that were difficult to use up quickly.

My longterm sollution was to protect each separately in freezer-rated ziplocs, and freeze them, keeping only a three-month supply in individual recycled spice jar. Also, I would buy whole spices as much as possible, and use them freshly ground as needed, same as they do in rural Asia.

Enjoying the local foods, and looking forward to replenishing my kitchen when I am rerooted in the West.

April 4, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJan Douw

Hi Melissa, I have looooads of spices, too. You've just tempted me to count them, and list them! I, too, cook Indian food, and because of that have acquired quite a collection of spices! Including the dried mango powder, and kalonji seeds that you mentioned! And no, I haven't cooked with them yet, but I do have two recipes that I've been meaning to try: naan (which is why I bought kalonji) and a prawn coconut dish that uses amchoor, and sounds really interesting.

Also, I am always so tempted to buy new spices, but then I feel like I need to be using up the ones that I already have... But I love smelling them, and even seeing them! aaaaah

I'm addooorree aromas and fragrances in general - I'm absolutely hopeless when it comes to that! Actually, I've written a post about my favourite cooking aromas. Would you like to tell me which ones are yours? Here you go: http://maninas.wordpress.com/2007/05/25/aromas-why-i-love-cooking/

Hey Melissa, you have a very neat blog here & I have enjoyed going through a lot of posts. I see that you enjoy Indian food. Believe me I too am in the habit of collecting all sorts of spices, n I have so many that I cant count them, n no way will they come in a spice wrack, so I have brought small containers of the same quality to stack my loot!!

Masala chai is a favorite - have you ever tried ginger tea. Its awesome

I would invite you to visit my blog to check out some authentic North Indian recipes.

December 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterShella

Only 42 spices? Amateur! <grin> I do understand. My spice collection was the reason for me holding 4 tupperware parties so I could get enough spice jars to contain them. Then I moved overseas and left all my spice jars behind. But it hasn't taken me long to build up a new collection, and now build up a giant collection of jars here. sigh... but you can't do without them can you?

May 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKiriel

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