Masala matters

Several commercially available masalas have come under the scanner lately after concerns over the levels of ethylene oxide. This was something our grandmothers didn’t have to fret over as they roasted spices on coal fires and hand-pounded them into flavourful blends to add depth and vigour to an assortment of dishes, writes Ranjini Rao
Last Updated : 23 June 2024, 01:49 IST

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In sustainability food talk, we often hear the terms “locally sourced,” “small batches,” “handmade,” and “chemical free,” and scramble to pick products from brands that offer a long line-up of options under these labels. What we forget to acknowledge is that ancient wisdom too is a sustainability yardstick in food-related matters. Knowledge sharing, functional documentation and persistent adoption of hyperlocal agro and culinary practices are extremely significant milestones in our eco-centric journeys.

There’s a growing body of scientific evidence favouring the significance of culinary traditions as tools to help improve food security, nutritional equity, and overall health and environmental benefits. These could work as powerful starting points for the transformation of entire food systems. Right from harvesting, preserving, preparing and consuming local foods, our farmers and ancestors have been the keepers of knowledge for much of our food biodiversity. How we take this forward is crucial, because it could be a potentially secure anchor and cultural goalpost for youngsters stuck in a world where freezer — and not farm-to-table — is the norm.

When you think about it, convenience is the watchword in a majority of urban kitchens as masalas in dry and paste form, ready to pour from sealed glitzy packets can be bought with a single click from convenience stores. The way I remember it, masalas were always made in a designated corner of my mother’s kitchen that disgorged heat fumes like fluffy clouds. There was a stoic power about the masala maker during the whole process, akin to that of the women in the movie Mirch Masala, drying and grinding the red chillies, their collective rage and spunk reflected in the redness of the chillies they dealt with. 

I reflect on my childhood memories of partaking in the ceremonial, bi-annual masala-making project, which pressed into service the collective energy of the entire family. There was a wide range of everyday masalas we’d churn out: rasam powder, sambar powder, vangi bhath powder, chutney pudi, menthyada hittu, to name a few. These would be stored in stainless steel canisters or washed and dried glass jam bottles and refilled at regular intervals.

Today, I find myself following in my mother’s footsteps, grinding my own masalas and storing them in re-purposed bottles, sticking a twig of neem in them to keep pests at bay. As I cook with them, infusing fresh aromas into a repertoire of inherited recipes, I anticipate that they’d sprout into full-mouthed conversations at the table — even years hence, as the next generation takes over, ascribing their own meanings to the ritual.

Here are some everyday staple masalas you can make and find multiple uses for, while honouring time-tested traditions and sustainability practices, by lowering energy consumption, for instance, due in most part to the supply chain logistics of packaged foods, and consequently, ecological footprint.

Menthyada Hittu
(Makes about 200 grams)


• 1⁄2 cup chana dal
• 1⁄2 cup urad dal
• 1⁄4 cup moong dal
• 1⁄4 cup toor dal
• 1 teaspoon jeera
• 1 1⁄2 teaspoons methi
• 1 1⁄2 teaspoons coriander seeds
• 1 1⁄2 teaspoons whole wheat
• 1 teaspoon whole black pepper
• 2 sprigs curry leaves
• 1⁄4 teaspoon turmeric
• 1⁄2 teaspoon dry ginger powder
• 4–6 dry red chillies
• A pinch of asafoetida

• Roast the dals in a pan on low heat, until they turn light brown. Empty them into a big steel plate or bowl, and set aside.
• Add the jeera, methi, coriander, whole wheat to the same pan, roast on low heat until they turn light brown, empty them into the bowl/plate with the dals, and set aside.
• Add the remaining ingredients to the same pan, roast under low heat for a few minutes, until the raw smell goes away, and turn off the heat.
• Once all the roasted ingredients are cooled, grind them to a smooth finish in the mixie, and let cool before storing in an airtight container. It
will stay for up to four weeks.
• Serve this with hot rice, salt and ghee at the beginning of a meal, for better digestion and as a remedial order for acidity.
Note: Make a slightly thick paste with 2-3 tablespoons of this powder and water, add a splash of tamarind juice/ extract, salt, jaggery, bring it to a gentle simmer for about 3-4 minutes, remove from heat. Add chopped cold cucumber to it and enjoy it with rice or rotis!

Rasam powder
(Makes about 400 grams)

• 1 teaspoon groundnut oil
• 1⁄4 kg coriander seeds
• 1⁄4 kg dry red chillies (Byadagi)
• 50 gms cumin seeds
• 50 gms fenugreek seeds
• 25 gms mustard seeds
• 25 gms black pepper
• 2 sprigs curry leaves
• 1 teaspoon turmeric
• 1⁄2 teaspoon asafoetida powder


• Heat the oil in a pan, and add the coriander seeds and red chillies, fry on low heat until they’re done. Empty both into a large steel bowl/plate,
set aside.
• In the same pan, fry the remaining ingredients on a low flame until done, and turn off the heat.
• Once all the ingredients are cooled, grind to a fine powder in the mixie. Let it cool completely before storing in an airtight container.
• Stays for upto 4 weeks outside, or 2 months in the freezer.
Use in rasam according to spice preference (typically 2 teaspoons for 2 cups of rasam)

Note: Use this powder for various other preparations, like Gojju, or make this quick chutney as a side dish with idli/ dosa by mixing ½ teaspoon of the masala powder with 3-4 tablespoons of thick curd, add a dash of salt and sugar, stir well.

(Ranjini Rao is a communications professor, author, and podcaster, straddling multiple worlds in Bengaluru. She’s passionate about urban farming and sustainable living, and can mostly be found cooking and baking in her little kitchen where, surrounded by heirloom coffee kettles and mismatched tea cups, she finds her chi.)

Published 23 June 2024, 01:49 IST

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