It may not evoke as much nostalgia as your grandmother’s china or be as valuable as your mother’s pearls, but ask any Indian cook about the spice box, and you will hear that this kitchen essential is a prized heirloom.
The secret to mastering Indian home-style cooking lies in that box, typically a round, very deep, lidded stainless steel container, fitted with seven bowls, each filled with a different spice. The idea is that you set the box beside your pot so you’re not scrambling and looking for different spice containers while the oil is at its perfect temperature.
Timing is key in Indian cooking. Many recipes begin by heating oil first, then adding small amounts of spices in quick succession. The oil’s temperature has to be just right so mustard seeds pop, cumin seeds sizzle, and turmeric and red chile powders lose their raw edge without burning. The spice box is the most efficient and practical way of accessing the required spices easily: Open one lid and everything you need is right there.
Each spice box bowl holds a half-cup of spice that a cook will replenish every few weeks from a larger stock. Since spices, particularly ground ones, lose their flavor and aroma quickly, most cooks store them in airtight containers, keeping only small amounts in the box.
Because of the great effort in procuring the spices and keeping the box refilled, Neena Patel Williams, a Los Angeles resident, recently designed a kit to make Indian cooking easy for beginners. Williams, who was raised in London, where her family owned an Indian restaurant, moved to the United States in 2010. One of the first things she noticed was that Indian spices were less readily available here than in England. “I would often meet people who told me they loved Indian food but didn’t know how to cook it,” Williams says on the phone. A passionate cook herself, Williams decided that all people really needed to overcome their fear of Indian cooking was a “helping hand.”
Last fall, Williams released a kit she calls the Kitchen Curry Master, which comes with 12 spices and a recipe book. The vegetables, seafood, and meat recipes, all gluten-free, are explained in simple, easy-to-follow steps. The book also has an explanation of most Indian spices — what part of the plant they come from and what they bring to the dish — with a picture-index fold-out for quick identification.
The kit is “dummy-proof,” says Mitch Powers, a Disney marketing executive, who lives in Los Angeles and loves Indian food. “I am not a cook but my wife and I love Indian food,” he says. “The kit makes me feel like a chef. I can create so many dishes so easily.”
The spices in Williams’s kit are typical of Gujarat, a western Indian state where her family is from. The contents of a spice box, though, vary from region to region and even from family to family. In the north, every spice box has ground cumin-coriander powder; in the south, asafetida, a dried gum powder, is a must.
Lexington resident Ragini Pathak has a box filled with spices from western India, where her husband is from, and eastern India, where she is from. Pathak actually has two boxes. One, which is steel, she uses every day. It was given to her by her mother when she married. A wooden one, crafted before steel became popular, was inherited from her grandmother; Pathak uses it more like a display piece. “My spice boxes fill me with nostalgia and comfort,” Pathak says, remembering her grandmother, whom she thought was an extraordinary and innovative cook. “I feel good knowing I have all the spices I need, to make a simple meal, in one place.”
Every summer, when Pathak’s family rents a vacation house, the one thing she never forgets to pack is her spice box. At home, it sits by her stovetop, within easy reach.
It isn’t difficult to make your own spice box. Both the box and the spices are available in Indian grocery stores. A starter box should include mustard and cumin seeds, turmeric and red chile powders, ground cumin-coriander powder, garam masala, and whole red chiles.
Once you have all your spices in one place, cooking Indian food will seem less intimidating.