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 parents’ 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 voilà, 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?”
$15.00, Diaspora Co.
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.
“Historically, as someone growing up in Maharashtra, Gujarati food can feel as different as someone growing up in Spain may feel about Greek food,” Irani says, referring to different states and foodways in India. A North Indian household can turn to MTR Sambar Powder to cook this fixture of South Indian and Sri Lankan meals, whereas a cook from South India may purchase Everest Chole Masala to cook the Punjabi dish. Spice blends bridge the gap.
And for Desi kids in the diaspora who didn’t grow up eating Indian street food on Indian streets, spice blends can help in establishing a connection to those recipes. “Things like that pav bhaji masala made it so whole generations felt empowered to make dishes that otherwise there would have been no connection to,” says Kadri.
There are certainly some limitations, a hurdle Kadri encountered developing Diaspora Co.’s masala blends. After launching chai masala in October 2021, it quickly became Diaspora Co.’s most popular product, but Kadri fretted over what that meant for the broader perception of chai. “Were we flattening what chai masala can be?” Kadri wanted it to be clear: “It’s not the chai, it’s my chai.”
Same deal with developing Diaspora Co.’s biryani masala—biryani being a layered rice dish with myriad regional preparations across the subcontinent with fierce loyalty on all sides. Kolkata-style biryani includes potatoes. Pakki and kacchi-style biryanis differ on whether the meat and rice are first cooked and then layered, or if they’re layered as raw ingredients and then cooked together. Every element of this dish can be up for debate, from the variety of rice used, to the vessel in which it is cooked, to the spices included.
“Our biryani masala was an example of us taking that tension and trying to play with it,” says Kadri. “The idea there was, can we make a base masala, but then come up with regional recipes?” Prioritizing respect for the incredible diversity of South Asian cooking and creating space for its complexity and nuance was key.
“Our biryani masala can make our version of a damn good Hyderabadi chicken biryani,” Kadri says, referring to an especially beloved and fragrant preparation of the dish. But if you add a few ingredients and tweak the technique, it can also become a Malabari Prawn Biryani (with the addition of plenty of acid, pandan, and Indian short-grain rice called jeera samba), or a Kashmiri Vegetable Biryani (with no meat, milder on the heat, and a dash of asafetida). “That was the fun—how do we give someone a masala, and teach them that this is just the beginning?”
South Asian spice blends have never been better.
“The breadth and scope of the blends is breathtaking right now—you walk into an Indian store and you have hyperegional spice blends easily and quickly available and accessible to anyone who wants to cook that style of cuisine,” says Irani.
Outside of South Asian grocery stores, direct-to-consumer brands like Diaspora Co., Spicewalla, and Podi Life are making them more equitable and transparent in their sourcing and pricing. Diaspora Co., for example, works directly with farmers in India and Sri Lanka and makes the details of their supply chain publicly accessible.
Brands like Curio Spice and Burlap & Barrel partner with chefs and cooks for their personalized blends and technical expertise—Burlap & Barrel, for example, immortalizing the late chef Floyd Cardoz’s masalas in a collection of six spice blends.
“As we grow, we’re realizing that masalas are where it’s at,” said Kadri. “It’s a fun place to be.”
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit