Masala dabbas or a traditional Indian spice box are a staple in traditional Indian kitchens! A masala dabba is a spice storage container that keeps common ingredients handy to make the cooking process easier.
This spice box is used to store spices commonly used in Indian cooking. It provides an easy and quick way to access Indian spices needed in regular cooking. Instead of opening multiple spice jars you open one large container that houses everything you need!
A masala dabba is a stainless steel or brass container used for storing Indian spices. Masala means spice and dabba means container/box. Inside the container there are 7 smaller spice containers.
Masala dabbas tend to be round, although there are some square types available as well. Each of the smaller spice containers usually comes with a small spoon to make for easy usage. In some dabbas, they are stainless steel cups with individual lids.
While the list of Indian spices is extensive in an Indian pantry, there are a subset of essential Indian spices that can make a HUGE variety of Indian dishes which will bring a lot of flavor to your meals.
These are the spices that are kept handy so you don’t need to keep twisting off cap of individual glass spice jars.
What’s in my masala dabba?
Most commonly used spices are kept in an Indian spice box, known as masala dabba. The set of spices can vary depending on which Indian regional food you cook the most.
Here is a peak of what I keep in my spice box, which is heavily influenced by what my Mom keeps in hers! These spices along with a few others that don’t fit in the box are the keys to regular home style Indian cooking.
- Cumin seeds
- Cumin – coriander powder spice blend
- Red Chili powder
- Turmeric powder
- Cinnamon pieces/ whole cloves
- Garam masala
- Mustard seeds
- Cumin seeds, black mustard seeds and asofetida are used VERY often for tadkas or tempering of oil in Gujarati dishes
- Whole cinnamon pieces and cloves are used in tadka as well as for rice dishes such as pulaos or biryanis.
- Cumin-coriander, red chili powder, ground turmeric and garam masala are staple powdered spices (garam masala is a spice blend).
I keep asoefetida (hing) in a separate small glass bottle. It has a strong smell and I don’t want it to permeate the others. I also keep salt and sugar nearby.
This keeps me set for my mostly Gujarati food / regular Indian cooking. Gujarat is in Western India. These spices generally work for North Indian dishes as well.
Note: You’ve likely heard Indian food is very different regionally. So, dependent on your cooking preferences and habits you may keep different spices in your masala box! I’d love to hear what you keep in your dabba!
Tip: while I keep a spice blend of cumin and coriander powder, you may choose to keep ground coriander separate from ground cumin powder. Dhaniya jeera (cumin coriander) blend is commonly used in Gujarati cooking so I use that.
As you can see in the picture, the box is a set of open containers which sit inside a larger box which can be covered with a lid.
Types of Masala Dabba
- Each container usually comes with a small spoon to make for easy usage. stainless steel cups with individual lids (usually fits 7 spices)
- Stainless steel Indian spice boxes are the easiest to clean and maintain.
- Brass masala dabbas are also popular like the one pictured above.
- While I’ve seen wooden boxes, I don’t recommend them as they won’t keep moisture out as well as stainless steel tin.
If I’m totally honest, I say go for function and use a stainless steel spice box. You can throw it in a dish washer and not worry about cleaning brass.
Another idea is to use a stainless steel one for your ground spices and a brass one for your whole spices. The dabba with whole spices will need less cleaning.
organize Your Indian masala dabba
Your masala dabba should be organized by key ingredients you frequently use for Indian cooking. I have an extensive list of spices used in Indian cooking. The reality is, I have all of those spices in my kitchen. Indian cuisine uses both whole and ground spices.
So, you will notice both types are listed. While my Mom keeps a 2nd masala dabba with whole spices such as green cardamom, I have used one of my dabba containers for cloves and cinnamon sticks as I use them most often.
You could also choose to keep dried Indian herbs in another container! It really is up to your preference and how often you use each ingredient. I prefer to keep dried herbs in separate glass containers as I don’t use them as often as ground spices.
If you are new to Indian cooking or not familiar with spices used in Indian cooking, I suggest using the Indian spices I have outlined above. Then, as you go along in your cooking journey, just adjust to match your needs.
storing the Indian Spice Box
Store the masala dabba in:
- An easily accessible location: near your stove
- A cool, dry location: in a cabinet
Cleaning and maintenance
Don’t forget to clean your spice box. Whether it is after a single cannister has become empty or a quarterly cleaning of the entire box. Just helps to keep it fresh.
Where to buy a dabba?
They can easily be sourced from:
- Your local Indian grocery store
If you have someone in your life who enjoys Indian cooking I think a dabba would be a great gift box to give with different spice containers filled with spices!