Essentials of a South Indian Masala Dabba


Hope you all had a lovely week – guess what its just 3 weeks to the end on 2016!! Can you believe it?! I sure can’t as this year has gone by so quick… so many things to do and so less time!!

Speaking of masala dabbas, I know this is by far, the most important thing in an Indian kitchen, however if you are not from South Asia then I would like to know if you own one yourself?

To my South Asian readers, please share what I can find in your masala dabba… I’m curious to learn 🙂

Tempering your Indian dishes with a combination of any of these spices is paramount to achieving the authentic taste, as Indian cooking is very much about attaining a keen sense of aromatics.

A South Indian masala dabba is certainly different to a North Indian one, with a few ingredients in common, generally it just depends on what you have grown up around or seen your grandmothers, mothers, aunts or sisters use the most. I wanted to share the essential ingredients in my masala dabba (or masala ‘box’)

Black/ Brown Mustard Seeds: No South Indian kitchen in complete without mustard seeds! Best used while tempering a sambar or curry.

Dried Red Chillies: These are of a specific variety grown in the state of Karnataka, India called Byadige Chillies. They add mild heat and a lot of colour to your dishes. Wondering why some curries and rasam have that trademark red colour, well its these guys that do the trick 😉

Cumin Seeds: This is one of the ingredients which is also used a lot in North Indian cooking, Cumin Seeds have an earthy flavour. They are an absolute must in any Nepalese, Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan  or Bangladeshi cooking

Black Pepper: Its fragrant with a slightly astringent quality. Adds heat to your dishes, can be added whole or freshly ground in your dhal, curry or rasam

Urad Dal: This is specific to South Indian cooking and is a type of lentil used especially while tempering sambar, it adds a distinct flavour to your dishes

Red Chilli Powder: This is the powdered version of the dried red chillies we spoke about previously, used to enhance colour and heat in your dishes

Turmeric Powder: An essential ingredient in most Indian cooking, adds an earthy flavour, with slight bitterness and lots of colour. Remember not to add too much turmeric as it will turn your dish bitter!

Other important accompanying ingredients (mostly fresh, not dry like the ones above) to complement the ones in the masala dabba include:

Fresh Green chillies: Adds heat and freshness to your dish. Please note that fresh green chillies can be very potent and one would have to use them in moderation, however they also add a good fresh flavour to your dish apart from heat

Fresh Curry Leaves: This is a distinctly South Indian ingredient, no kitchen is complete without fresh curry leaves. Most homes in the south have a home-grown curry leaf tree that one would directly harvest leaves for a South Indian tadka! Missing my maternal home just by the thought of it!!

Fresh Ginger: Ginger has an earthy flavour too, no replacement for this! It adds warmth to your dishes and a must have in the kitchen

Fresh Garlic: I love garlic in most things, this is the only optional ingredient on my list, but takes the flavour up by several notches every time! In South India, some of us use it and some of us don’t.

Asafoetida: This is a substance from the root of a specific plant, mostly available in powdered form, again add in moderation!  A key ingredient while tempering dhal, samabar or rasam

While tempering, I tend to use a combination of at least 8 of these 12 ingredients, this in my opinion is what makes a dish authentically South Indian.

Remember its all about the aromatics!

Hope this was helpful, would love to hear your thoughts 🙂

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