More Recipes Should Call for South Asian Spice Blends
For many Hindi-speaking people of a certain generation, reciting the MDH masala jingle is like muscle memory. The tune—a jangly chant through a short lineup of spice blends—is catchy, shamelessly rhyming “masala” with “masala,” and the rainbow cardboard cartons of the Indian spice blend brand are a familiar staple.
“I grew up with a full section of the fridge dedicated to MDH masalas,” says Sana Javeri Kadri, founder of Diaspora Co. She jokes that, to this day, her parent’s fridge is still stocked with those masalas from her youth, even though their daughter runs a spice company.
However, either out of concern of accessibility, or in pursuit of a purist notion of “authenticity,” many recipe developers in the US have been hesitant to call for South Asian spice blends. Instead, the ingredients portion of recipes may list over a dozen individual spices to then toast, grind, and blend.
“I feel like blends got a bad rap because of things like curry powder being thought of as this one, ubiquitous Indian spice blend,” says Meherwan Irani, chef and founder of Spicewalla, a small-batch spice company. “Just toss it on anything and voila, you’ve made ‘Indian’ food.”
The not-so-secret secret is that many South Asian home cooks swear by pre-blended Desi spices. Brands from the subcontinent like MDH, Shan, Badshah, Everest, and MTR remain South Asian grocery store staples, while next-generation direct-to-consumer companies like Spicewalla, Diaspora Co., and Podi Life are reaching new markets.
There’s never been a better time to stock up on South Asian spice blends and use them with abandon in your home cooking. Here’s why.
Store-bought spice blends allow you to cook South Asian food more frequently.
Making your own spice blend can be a labor of love. For frequently used blends, such as garam masala, personalizing to your palate, preference, and culture is an alchemy that’s often perfected over generations, reaching family heirloom status. To replicate the communal, time-consuming practice of preparing blends from scratch can be daunting.
And who among us hasn’t been deterred from cooking a new recipe because of the length of the ingredients list?
“As a young arrogant cook, that was my approach—that we have to do it all ourselves,” says Kadri. “At some point, I had to wrestle with the fact that it’s not realistic. When was the last time I made tandoori chicken, just because I refused to buy a ready-made masala? What if you buy the ready-made masala and have more tandoori chicken in your life?”
For the months that Kadri was developing Diaspora Co.’s Tandoori Masala, bottles and bottles of masala test runs sat on her kitchen counter. She made everything from tandoori paneer to cauliflower tossed in the smoky-tangy blend. “I was on a roll and it brought me so much joy,” she says. “That’s what I learned—it’s about joy. We don’t have to take it so seriously.” Purchasing well-made, favorite Desi spice blends like mouth-puckering chaat masala or earthy-sweet pav bhaji masala is a shortcut, not a cop-out.
Desi masalas unlock more regional cooking.
Despite the fear that relying on spice blends can flatten perception of the subcontinent’s cuisine, South Asian spice blends have actually made regional cuisines more accessible.