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
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!