If there is one thing that has become synonymous with East Indian food, it is bottle masala. There are tales abound about the laborious process, the difficulty of finding that perfect masala and how it is a must in every East Indian kitchen.
The bottle masala mixture contains a range of spices (see recipe). These are dried in the sun for at least two days. “I still remember those days when the ladies in the village gathered together with freshly procured stock of dry red chillies and other spices — enough to sustain the entire village. They first discarded the stems of the red chillies. The spices were then gently roasted on earthen pots till the skin darkened slightly. Each of the other spices were lightly roasted in a wood stove. The masala was pounded in the wooden mortar (okhali) with a long pestle,” says Sybil Rodrigues, an East Indian and secretary, Infiniti Mall, Andheri.
Rodrigues lives in Kalina, a village that she grew up in. Her memories of bottle masala revolve around watching her mother supervise the women who would come to the village to help with the pounding and roasting of the spices. “Families would do it in turns. There was one person who would give us the spices in perfect quantities,” she says. Each family has their own recipe for bottle masala, usually dependent on the chillies used. The women would usually carry their own instruments like the okhali. “We judged whether the spices were ready by their aroma.”
Today, because of time constraints, this food staple in the East Indian home is made by a limited few. Rodrigues's sister is one of the few who still diligently makes this masala every year. The best time is just before the monsoon, when the sun is at its hottest. She makes the masala in batches, on order. There is a shortage of those women pounders (the ones available are booked months in advance) so she makes it alone. The pounding work is done at the nearest mill. “It’s still a long process but she does it every year. She makes large quantities so in case there's an emergency, bottle masala can always be found at her home,” says Rodrigues.
Bottle masala is used in all East Indian dishes, providing fragrance and flavour to chicken, seafood and even vegetables. And for homesick East Indians settled abroad, every visit to India must include stocking up on these bottles to take back home,” says Rodrigues.
Bottle Masala Recipe
Tumeric — ½kg
Dhania — ¾kg
Cumin seeds (jeera) — ¼kg
Kali Miri (Pepper) — ¼kg
Teel (sesame seeds) — ½kg
Khus khus — ½kg
Rai (mustard seeds) — ¼kg
Dalchini (cinnamom) — ¼kg
Kababchuni — 50gm
Lavang — 50gm
Mai patri — 50gm
Nai kaiser — 50gm
Badiyan (anise-star) — 50gm
Hing( asafoetida) — 50gm
Big Black elaichi (cardamom black) — 50 gms
Jaipal (Nutmeg) — 2
Shahijeera(cumin seeds black) — 50gm
Elaichi (green cardamom) — 50gm
Javitri (mace) — 50gm
Tirphal (Sichuan pepper) — 50gm
Tej patta (bay leaf) — 50gm
Dagar phool (star anise) — 50gm
Whole wheat — ¼kg
Brown gram — ¼kg
Saunf (fennel seeds) — 50gm
Madras red chillies — 2kg
Resham patti red chillies — 1kg
Kashmir chillies — 2kg
Method: Discard the stems of the red chillies and keep the above ingredients in the heat of the sun at least for two days. Gently roast the chillies till the skin darkens slightly. Lightly roast each of the other spices. Do not keep it open after roasting the above ingredients, keep it in an airtight container. Take it to the mill for pounding. When ready fill the masala in the bottles as shown in the above picture.