Friday 27 April 2012

Spice Up Your Life

What’s in your spice cupboard?                                                    

Has anyone seen the Michael McIntyre sketch about spice jars? Every time I make Chinese food I remember his impression of the jar of Chinese five spice and it brings a smile to my face.  If you haven’t seen it you must watch this clip:

Contrary to his sketch I couldn’t manage without my herbs and spices. Somebody once asked me if there was a fire in my house and I had to save one thing from my kitchen what would it be? (a random question I know, but I promise I’m not making it up)! I thought hard and decided it would be a toss-up between my recipe journal, with all the recipes I have adapted and created over the last few years, or my spice rack.
My spice rack started off very modestly. When I first moved into N’s his spice collection consisted of five clear jars full of completely unknown elements and a wonderful thing called a masala dabba (spice box). Now for those of you who don’t know a masala dabba is a round stainless steel box with a lid that contains approximately 8-10 small stainless steel containers. I can almost guarantee you that if you look hard enough you will find one in every South-East Asian household.

It is ingenious, I urge you all to go and get one. It means you can use so many beautiful spices without having to open half a dozen small bottles or jars with slightly grubby hands whilst trying to avoid burning your food. An Indian masala dabba generally contains a combination of the following spices:  coriander powder, cumin powder, turmeric, red chilli powder, paprika, garam masala, dried mango powder, garlic powder, ginger powder, salt, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and mustard seeds (phew!). However, I’m sure my mum and mum-in-law will read this and tell me there’s a few more I’ve forgotten!

N’s dabba was given to him by his mum when he moved out. I think the intention was to make sure her son would remain well-nourished and would be able to re-create all the wonderful meals she had raised him on.  It turns out I’m still waiting for him to make me one! However her hard work was not in vain. I make great use of her spice box and have used and re-filled the containers many times. The bit that touches me most is how she has carefully written the name of each spice on a white label and attached it to the edge of each container. She clearly didn’t have much faith in her son’s culinary skills and, although I am completely ashamed to admit it, I don’t know where I would be without those labels…so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my mum-in-law for helping to avoid a few culinary mishaps!
Herbs I find are a bit trickier. I do use dry herbs and I keep a lot of them in stock but there’s nothing as delicious as using fresh herbs. I used to buy a small pack of thyme and then for the next week everything I made tasted the same as I had to use up the packet before it spoiled. When I finally learnt that freezing herbs works so well it transformed my life. Some herbs you can freeze whole like thyme and rosemary, but others like coriander, parsley and basil require a little more work so I buy those ready frozen. The Waitrose Cook’s Ingredients range is an absolute blessing!

My spice rack has evolved the more and more I cook.  With each new recipe I try I often end up buying myself a new little jar of something magical. A spice and herb rack doesn’t have to be fancy. You don’t have to by one of those purpose built turntables with clear jars. My rack is just a two tier metal shelving unit which I have lined with card so the jars don’t wobble. Your spice rack should be something that works for you and for your kitchen. Below I have listed the contents of my collection just in case you’re looking for some inspiration. There are still a few things on my wish list that I haven’t got round to buying, such as star anise and fennel seeds, but I seem to be managing pretty well with what I’ve got.

basil; bay leaves; black mustard seeds; Cajun spice; celery salt; Chinese five spice; chives; coriander powder; cumin powder; cumin seeds; dried crushed chillies; garam masala; garlic powder; ginger powder;  ground cinnamon;  herbes de provence; Italian herb dressing; paprika; parsley; pepper; saffron; salt; tarragon and turmeric.
Do add a comment and let me know what your must-have spices are, as I’m always looking for new ideas…Whether you build a small collection or a large one I hope you love the food it helps you create.

Next time, log in for a healthy homemade fish and chips alternative.


  1. Loved the McIntyre reference! Hilarious. And the masala dabba. Where can one pick this up from? Please let me know, I am in North London. Excellent blog. KK, London

  2. loved reaading your blog Preeti. First thing this morning when i saw your blog my eyes half opend and read it all it was so so so interesting.
    Keep it up.
    Cant wait to read your next blog.
    K. London

  3. McIntyre!!! Yep I watched that n couldnt help but laugh out loud!!! N then I looked at the spice rack in my kitchen n though " one day I'll find a recipe to use that spice " (even if it was only once!!!) this has yet to happen
    So when my sister came round she chuckled as she said I wonder which u use the most! Because Preeti as u quite rightly said I have a masala dabba

  4. ...cont... But I also have a rotating rack that I 'had' to have to move into my marital home!!!
    But what I would do without my mums prepared masala Daba I don't know!! And thanks mum for regularly refilling it for me when u visit!
    Ps I agree Preeti freezing herbs is a godsend!
    Sk MK

  5. Great Blog on the masala daba. Funnily I inherited one from mum when I moved.... I laughed when she gave it to me thinking when am I ever going to use it? But Ive surprised myself and it needed refilling before I knew it :) What would we do without mums and the inherited masala daba? KK

  6. I’ve just been reading your blog Preeti and loved reading it.

    Being a Guju mum and Housewife my must have spices, apart from the normal masala Daba spices is Paubhaji masala and chhole masala. I tend to use these in daal and sabjis and the taste is Yummmm..

    CK Leicester

  7. Thank you all for your great comments, particularly CK for letting me know your must-have spices. I was hoping this post would generate some ideas and discussion and I was right!
    As for where you can buy a masala dabba, just go on to amazon, they have some great ones. Do keep adding your comments, it really does make blogging a lot more fun!

  8. I enjoyed the video!
    Masala dabba sounds really interesting, I doubt, though I will find one anywhere near me.
    As to the spices I have, I don't even know myself, but I have star anise, garam masala, rosemary, different peppers, different salts, basil, oregano, majoram, cardamom, cumin, tumeric, cinammon, fenel seeds, and others.


Do leave a message about this post or about anything else. I know it's a bit time consuming sometimes but I do love to hear from you!