Everyone Needs a Masala Dabba

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It’s easy to fall down the internet rabbit hole of proper spice storage. There are whole genres of TikTok dedicated to magnetized walls, drawer organizers, and cabinet inserts that will transform your kitchen into a more efficient one. Or maybe the sell is that these products will transform you. By organizing all your spices into matching, chic jars, you will suddenly become the kind of person who uses all those spices and absolutely does not forget about that box of harissa in the back of the shelf until it’s too late.

That may never happen, but instead of redoing all your drawers, may I suggest the humble masala dabba as the answer to all of your problems.

I probably should have had a masala dabba earlier, but coming from an Indian family does not automatically guarantee you’ll be equipped with Indian supplies. Instead, a friend sent me one as a housewarming gift seven years ago, and I’ve never looked back. The dabba is a cylindrical tin about eight inches wide, filled with individual katori, essentially little spice bowls, which all sit neatly together under a tight fitting lid that keeps the spices fresh. It’s meant to sit on your counter, ready to access whenever you need, and usually comes with one to several little spoons for which to scoop out your spices.

My dabba came pre-loaded with commonly used Indian spices I often cook with, like turmeric, red chili powder, hing, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, coriander powder, and garam masala. Almost immediately I found myself using those spices even more. I’d sprinkle some garam masala into eggs, some turmeric into my ginger tea, or just toss roast vegetables with some extra chili powder. Maybe it’s just that my brain forgets about what spices I have when they’re not directly in front of me, but the dabba has made it more likely for me to reach for spices at all. After all, it’s right there! I don’t even need to remember which drawer it’s in.

There’s nothing about the dabba that limits you to South Asian flavors. I’ve been thinking of getting a few more and organizing them by cuisine — my white pepper and Sichuan peppercorns in one, dried oregano and garlic powder in another — and keeping them in a neat stack on my counter. And while I don’t think I’ll ever stray from the kind of dabba you can get for $20 online, there are many more aesthetic options. Diaspora Co. sells a beautiful brushed brass one, though there’s a waitlist now. And there are more intricately decorated versions at Chumbak and Etsy.

Lots of people like to say cuisines that use many spices are “too complicated.” It’s true that dividing up food into “uses 50 spices” and “unseasoned” is a different kind of trap, but when home cooks decry complication, they’re usually complaining that a dish requires things they don’t personally have around. A dabba can’t solve the instinct to dismiss a whole cuisine just because you haven’t bought fenugreek. But it can make it so that more spices are at your immediate disposal. If the coriander is just a spoon away, who knows, you just might be inspired to experiment a bit more.

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