How chefs select, source and use masalas

Smell and taste spices before buying them.  (Istockphoto)
Smell and taste spices before buying them. (Istockphoto)


With the quality of prominent masala brands under the scanner, leading chefs share how they pick, buy and make spice blends

Indian spices have been feeling the heat. Hong Kong, Singapore and Nepal recently banned some varieties of MDH and Everest spices, claiming they contained more than the permissible limit of the pesticide ethylene oxide. It spurred the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to order a nationwide testing. According to news reports, it did not find traces of ethylene oxide in samples that it tested, yet the incident spotlights age-old concerns about adulteration of masalas.

There is a time-tested measure of purity of spices: Aroma followed by taste. Spices have essential oils which impart a pronounced aroma. “Don’t judge turmeric or chilli powder by its colour. Smell and taste them," advises Yajush Malik, chef and co-founder of the restaurant Gallops in Mumbai. If any powdered or whole spice has a fading aroma or none at all, it is either spurious or past its expiration date. Most chefs are particular about where they source their spices from and how they make their blends, and even if they choose packaged spices, each has a favourite.

“For me, the chaat masala by MDH is the king of all masalas," says Himanshu Saini, corporate chef of the hospitality brand Passion F&B that runs Michelin-starred restaurants Tresind and Avatara. Chef Manish Mehrotra uses it too.

Also read: Unique regional summer drinks of India

Using masalas right is both a skill and an art, and transforms the final taste of a dish. Saini shares his secret of “opening up" spinach-based dishes. He blends two parts cinnamon and three parts cumin, roasts this mix and grinds it. “Finish a spinach dish with this and taste the magic," he says. Similarly, asparagus with a pinch of aniseed is a match made in culinary heaven. Blending masalas can be learnt by understanding the science of flavour pairing. For starters, Saini recommends his all-time favourite book The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit.

Saini, a protegee of Mehrotra, trained with him at Indian Accent. On Indian Accent’s new summer menu is a melt-in-the-mouth duck khurchan served like a taco. It has shredded, roasted, juicy duck meat topped with kala chaat masala that brings out smoky notes—a perfect pairing.

Mehrotra speaks of three distinct types of chaat masalas used in Delhi. There’s kala chaat masala with higher quantities of roasted cumin and a bit of black pepper to impart a smoky flavour, peela chaat masala with distinctive citric notes, and the regular chaat masala. “If you visit Chandni Chowk, you will notice two food areas: one has the famous Parathewalli galli, halwais and Natraj ke dahi bhalle, which are run by Hindus, and the other side has Qureshi kebab, Aslam butter chicken, Kareem’s and they are Muslim-owned. I have observed the peela chaat masala is sprinkled over kebabs and the kala chaat masala goes into dahi bhalle and chaat," he says. For Indian Accent, he sources the kala chaat masala from Old Delhi’s Khari Baoli, believed to be the largest spice market in Asia.

Lalbaug in Mumbai is a similar burgeoning spice hub. It’s the place from where restaurants source their spices, food walks are organised for tourists, and passionate foodies get their regular stash of masala. Malik of Gallops buys his spices from there. Gallops’ menu is a mix of Indian and continental fare with kebabs and a Malvani curry being among diner favourites. For these dishes, he has to go beyond Lalbaug to get the right blends. The spices for his kebabs come from the Lucknow-based brand Nawab’s Secret, and for the Malvani curry, from a Malvani brand named Kelve Masale. “We buy powdered red chilli powder, turmeric and coriander from a brand called Ramdev in Gujarat. We have a B2B set-up and their products are of exceptional quality."

Some chefs have gone on to launch their own spices. Nalini Moti Sadhu, who runs the Kashmiri restaurant Matamaal with branches in Noida, Gurugram and Pune, launched her spice brand Kanz and Muhul during the pandemic. When she started her restaurant in 2016, there was a dearth of good-quality Kashmiri masalas like saunf (fennel) powder, saunth (ginger) powder and the unique tikki or vaaer masala. She bought two grinders and started making masala in-house. “Ninety per cent of Kashmiri food is about the masala. When my diners tasted our dishes, they enquired about the spices which drove us to launch a masala brand," she says. Another small-batch chef-oriented Indian spice brand is Cardoz Legacy, launched by chef Barkha Cardoz in memory of her late husband, Floyd Cardoz. As a hat tip to his origins, there are options like Goan masala and vindaloo masala.

While ready-to-mix blends are perfect for those who seek convenience, others like to make their own. One of the best explained recipes for garam masala is by chef Ranveer Brar on his eponymous YouTube channel. He breaks down garam masala into those that add body, and those with smoky or earthy notes, and lists the places known to produce the best-quality spice—coriander from Indore, bay leaves from Karnataka and mace from Kerala.

To retain the freshness and flavour, chefs recommend buying or making blends in small quantities and keeping them in airtight containers in a cool corner. If stored well, a little will go a long way.

Also read: The pickle platter of India


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