A Masala for All Seasons

Garam masala, Koli masala, sambar podi and paanch phoron: Rituparna Roy maps India's most beloved masala mixes.

She stands by the sooty gas stove, unmoved by the pungent fumes enveloping her kitchen. The kadai is glistening with mustard oil, as she releases the paanch phoron from her closed fist. As she tucks the loose end of her sari into her waist, I close my eyes and drown myself in the heady aroma of this quintessential Bengali five-spice mix.

It’s been two decades and the memory lingers on: watching my mother prepare simple, frugal recipes with not much more than a tempering of paanch phoron. Purists like her stay away from adding any further spices, claiming they leech the real flavour out of the vegetables.  

Paanch phoron is the king of spice mixes in eastern India. The five magic seeds – fennel, fenugreek, nigella, cumin, and radhuni (ajmod in Hindi) – are widely used for tempering vegetables, daals and the classic Bengali tomato-date chutney. My mother tells me she cannot imagine cooking dishes like kumro’r chechki (pumpkin stir fry) and paanchmishali’r torkari (a medley of five vegetables) without it. The Odiya ghaanto torkari is also a fine example, where a variety of vegetables, legumes and grains are cooked with just a mild tempering of panch phutana (as it is known in Odiya).

Food researcher and historian Pritha Sen traces the origin of this unique spice mix to the Pala dynasty, which dominated Bihar and Bengal between 8th and 12th century. “The Palas were devout Buddhists and their tradition carried a strong influence of the number five – five senses, five colours, five Buddhas, and so on. It is probably this philosophy that translated to the creation of several things, including five flavours – sweet, salt, bitter, sour and pungent – the very essence of paanch phoron,” she says.                                             

Paanch Phoron. Image credit: Rituparna Roy 

Paanch Phoron. Image credit: Rituparna Roy 

Spice blends form the very basis of Indian cooking. An assortment of multiple seeds and grains, each with its own characteristic flavour profile, lends a dish its unique taste and texture. Almost every community has its own spice mixes; recipes of which are often passed down through the generations like family heirlooms. A standard recipe within the community can vary from one family to another, with small tweaks to ingredients, quantities, and technique.

Take garam masala for instance – a unique blend of whole spices favoured for its strong, warm flavour, added as a final flourish, toward the end of the cooking process. The Punjabi variant is robust, unlike the Bengali alternative that is more subtle, owing to the addition of just three spices – cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. “Some people prefer more cardamom, others like more cinnamon. But most families add cumin, coriander, bay leaves, pepper, badi elaichi, cinnamon, fennel, cloves, nutmeg and dry ginger, in ratios that often vary,” says Bangalore-based food blogger and recipe consultant Monika Manchanda. Growing up in Delhi in a Punjabi family, Monika remembers her mother adding a pinch of this versatile powder to daals and other gravy dishes. “One dish that I simply cannot imagine without garam masala is, strangely, gobhi aloo."

In India, owing to the hot and humid weather, spice mixes are prepared according to nature’s clock. Come summer, and the women of Thal in Alibag will have a big task to tick off their list: stock up the pantry with a unique masala, to sustain an impending monsoon. By April-May, they’d have sun-dried and roasted 18 whole spices like coriander, cumin, fennel, poppy seeds, asafoetida, star anise, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom among others to create Koli Masala, a flavourful concoction inherent to the cuisine of the indigenous fishing community of Maharashtra.  

According to Anjali Koli, what lends the spice mix its distinct character is tirphal or Sichuan peppercorns – known for its intense flavour and bitter aftertaste. A combination of dry red chillies like Byadgi, Kashmiri and Guntur, gives a gentle kick crucial to the plethora of fish curries the community prepares daily. “In my ancestral village of Thal, sun drying the spices is an annual activity wherein two to three households come together to handpound the ingredients, and share the final product. The essential oils released in the process give the masala a superior taste,” she reveals. A paaplet (pomfret) or a bombil (Bombay duck) kanji (curry, in Koli) or even a doodhi sode (bottle gourd cooked with dried prawns) is inconceivable without a generous dose of Koli masala, she says.

The story of spice mixes within the Maharashtrian community is a fascinating one. Home-cook Ruchira Sonalkar takes pride in her misalnicha dabba – a compartmentalised spice box with handy spices used for the basic tempering of vegetarian dishes, and includes mustard seeds, cumin, asafoetida, turmeric and chilly powder. Maharashtrian Brahmins like her have their own blends called Goda masala comprising coriander seeds, cumin, dry coconut, sesame seeds and cinnamon, which compliment the subtle flavours of everyday Brahmin recipes such as ambat varan (tangy dal) or bharli vangi (stuffed baby eggplants). “On the contrary, Kolhapuri kanda lasun masala which, as the name suggests, has prominent flavours of onion and garlic, and a blend of fiery Sankeshwari chillies for a spicy zing, and Byadgi chilli for the bright colour it imparts. It is the star spice in misal – a snack cooked with mixed bean sprouts,” she adds. There is also the spicy kaala masala from northwestern Maharashtra – an assortment of basic garam masalas and dagad phool or black stone flower – that is used to make Nagpuri saoji mutton.

But, if there is one spice blend that unites a multitude of cuisines across south India, it is the sambhar masala. It enjoys cult status; preparing your own sambhar podi (powder) is considered sacrosanct in most households, and is rarely bought off the shelf. In Tamil Nadu, it is typically made by grinding dry roasted whole spices like coriander seeds, dried red chillies (Salem or Byadgi-Warangal combo), fenugreek seeds, black peppercorns, chana and toor daal, and turmeric. It goes without saying the recipe varies from one state to another. “In Karnataka, the sambhar podi makes use of mustard as well as cumin seeds, and sometimes even cinnamon and dry coconut. And in some Andhra versions, I have come across poppy seeds and urad daal,” says YouTuber Preetha Srinivasan. Some of her favourite dishes to cook with this versatile podi are urulai kizhanghu kara kari – a delicious and fragrant potato stir fry, kathirikkai roast or brinjal stir fry and a cheat pitlai – bitter gourd or brinjals, cooked with peanuts in a medium spicy tamarind daal.

Back in Mumbai, the Pathare Prabhus and Parsis – both famous as voracious fish and meat eaters – boast of their own versions of sambhar powders. Prabhu sambhar is integral to khadkhadle or curried shellfish cooked with prawns, crabs or lobsters in a bright red, garlicky sauce, in additional to goday or the Sunday mutton stew. “The name comes from ‘sam’+ ‘bhar’ meaning ‘equal weight’. There are three groups of ingredients – the grains, coriander-cumin and the spices – each of these groups are measured in equal weight, dry roasted separately and ground together – hence the name. This blend is typically a dark, coffee colour, and works as a mild thickening agent as well,” says Soumitra Velkar, well known for his Pathare Prabhu pop-ups in the city. What makes this sambhar different from other spice mixes is the use of kabab chini or Java pepper, similar to black pepper, with stalks attached as tails. “A good recipe usually has no less than 16 ingredients and is versatile as the dishes are distinctly different in taste, despite using the same masala,” Velkar tells me.

When it comes to Parsi spice mixes, one cannot ignore the kairi sambar masala, used in the classic Sunday dish dhansakh for tempering the daal. “The name includes kairi because it is also used for pickling mangoes,” says Rhea Dalal, who along with husband Kurush Dalal runs Katy’s Kitchen, a Parsi catering service in Mumbai. “A coarse grind of basic garam masalas, Byadgi and Reshampatti chillies, rai dal or split mustard, oil and salt make the Parsi sambhar masala, which is also used in sambhariya bheeda (okra dish) where it is the star spice,” she adds.

Koli masala. Image credit: Anjali Koli

Koli masala. Image credit: Anjali Koli

In some communities, preparing spice mixes is centred around special occasions. When an East Indian family announces a wedding, the first order of business, even before shopping for the bridal trousseau, is to take stock of its piquant bottle masala. A selection of 23 whole spices including mace, fennel, badi elaichi, star anise, fenugreek, coriander, cumin, nutmeg and rice grain among others are dry-roasted and sent to the nearest grinding mill to be turned into a fiery red powder, which is then stored in bottles to last the long monsoon. Collette Pesso, who is an East Indian, prefers her Mom’s bottle masala to store-bought ones when she prepares her son’s favourite pork sorpotel. She reveals that those living in suburban Mumbai, in Bandra like her, make a version that is different from those in Vasai, situated further north of the city.       

There is also kaari masala from the Bohra community – a blend where almonds, cashews and star anise are the main spices; the Gujarati sambhariya masala – a combination of ground peanuts, coconut, sesame and other spices; UP chaat masala – made with garam masalas, ajwain, mango powder and rock salt; Kashmiri werr masala – a wet spice cake consisting garam masalas, and so many more.  

In my Mumbai home, driven by an urge to cook kumro’r chechki, I sit down to slice pumpkin. I bring out the mustard oil and the last packet of paanch phoron I carried from home. “Maa, should I add onions?” I make a quick call. “No need. Just a dry red chilly,” she says, and I hang up in a hurry. Clearly, nostalgia with a pinch of your favourite spice mix can do wonders.     

Banner image credit: Little Kitchen Big World
Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based freelance features writer. She spends her free time cooking, travelling and obsessing over her balcony garden. She can be found on Instagram @rituparna_r