The Spice Bowl

Everyone has a skeleton in their closet. Mine just happens to be a spice bowl in my cupboard.

looks innocent enough; it’s a big glass bowl probably intended for
family-style salads, and inside are little bags of spices I’ve been
collecting over the years for my Indian food experiments. The bowl used
to be a box (or, more accurately, a tupperware container), but as the
contents kept growing, I had to upgrade to the bowl.

The problem
is that I’m highly ashamed of my spice bowl. In fact, probably very few
of my friends have ever even seen it. If I’m cooking while they’re
around, I make sure I have all the spices I need neatly laid out on the
counter before they arrive. I keep it stowed away in the pot cupboard,
high on a shelf that nothing else of importance is stored on. Nobody
ever looks there unless they have a reason to.

The fact is that
I used to have a perfectly reasonable number of spices, a packet of
cinnamon and some cloves, nutmeg, perhaps some curry and some cayenne
pepper. They hung out in the front of my cupboard, next to the tea and
sugar and ketchup, just like everyone else’s spices. Then I discovered
my love of Indian food, and things changed.

The few who have
seen The Bowl ask why I don’t simply get a spice rack. I just laugh.
There were 42 spices in my bowl at last count. Have you ever seen a
spice rack that holds 42 spices? Didn’t think so.

I’m not sure
why I’m so ashamed of it. Maybe it’s the knowledge that I possess more
spices than most Indian cooks that makes me feel just a teeny bit
obsessive. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve never been to India, and I
cook from cookbooks and buy my spices at the Middle Eastern shop on the
corner that makes me feel as if I’m somehow cheating. Maybe it’s
just the complete chaos inside the bowl and the excessive amount of
time it takes me to find what I need. I don’t know. I just know that
knowledge of its existence is not freely handed around.

Many of
the spices in that bowl represent memories, souvenirs from trips I’ve
taken and places I used to live. Many have crossed oceans with me.
Spices aren’t cheap, after all, and some I use so rarely that they
stick around for years. No matter where I live, however, I can’t
imagine one of my cupboards not having that penetrating mixture of
dusky, spicy, slightly stale aromas. Those spices have almost
become part of the family.

Maybe someday I’ll figure out what it
is about that bowl that compels me to hide it. But for now, as long as
the food I make with those spices is so tasty, does anyone really need
to know?


Masala Chai, Perfected

For one large or two small servings:
1 cup water
3/4 cup (180ml) whole milk
1/4 cup (60ml) evaporated milk or light cream
1 teaspoon loose black tea
1 (2-inch/5cm) cinnamon stick, broken
5 green cardamom pods, slightly crushed
5 whole cloves
1 (1/4-inch/1/2cm) slice fresh ginger, bashed a bit
2 whole peppercorns, slightly crushed
(optional additions, including mace, star anise, nutmeg or vanilla – not traditional but nice for a change)
sugar, to taste

Bring everything to a boil in a heavy-bottomed pot,
then reduce the heat to medium low. For the first few minutes, you’ll
have to monitor the pot, taking it off the heat if necessary, because
the violently bubbling brew will want to escape its confines and flood
your stovetop. After that stage has passed, however, you should just
let it quietly simmer for about half an hour. The longer you wait, the
better it will be! At the end you should have just over a cup of
liquid, depending on how long it’s been boiling. Strain the liquid into cups to serve.

A word of warning:
it’s quite rich. Of course you can substitute lowfat versions for
anything above. Or you could just serve it for dessert!