Indian households have next-level spice cupboards. I have seen many a spice collection in my time, and nothing compares to the vast quantity of spices and aromatics that are found in these homes. Often stored in jars or steel tins, you will find a spice for everything including medicinal and skincare remedies.
In my house, our spices were stored in jars in the bottom cupboard next to the stove. When I was little, it was my job to get all the necessary spices out of the cupboard when my parents were cooking, and then carefully pack them back in their designated spots. They would ask for the jeera (cumin), elaichi (cardamom) or manja (turmeric) and describe exactly what the spice looked like so I would get the correct ones. To this day, I still get confused with the English names of certain spices, having grown up using the Tamil names. When I got older, I was allowed to add spices to the dishes. It was my parent’s way of teaching me how to use them properly.
We lived in Joburg, but our spices came from Pietermartizburg where my parents grew up. Whenever we were there, we would go to Debbie Place, an Indian Market around the corner from my grandmother’s house and stock up. When I moved to Cape Town, my parents ensured I had a basic selection of spices for my own cooking. There was masala, manja, cinnamon sticks, elaichi and jeera. I didn’t need more than that, because I did not know how to make a proper curry, nor was I interested in learning (that is a story for another day). Whenever I went home, or they came to visit, they would restock my spices.
This happened for years, but one day I found myself in need of masala, and no parents around to help me out. Panicked I called my dad who acts as my personal food helpline and asked him to guide me. He saw this as an opportunity to expand my collection and introduce more spices to my repertoire. In addition to the basics he and mom supplied, he told me to get star aniseed, cloves, bay leaves, chilli powder and garam masala.
I was a little scared that I would not know how to navigate these new additions, and that they would not be as good as the spices from Debbie Place, but it was time for me to become a real Indian girl so off I went.
Turns out there was no reason to be afraid. All the time I spent packing the spice cupboard prepared me. Everything was so familiar. I passed the whole spices and remembered how my grandmother used to grind whole spices to make powders using a glass Coke bottle. Going through the shops was just like going through the big, colourful bowls of spices in Debbie place, and I was delighted to see “mother-in-laws tongue” a particularly hot masala that always fascinated me. There were even tamarind sweets, one of my absolute favourites treats that my parents always got for me when we went spice shopping. I found everything that I needed and then some – it really was an awesome experience.
My spice cupboard is now as extensive as my parents’ one. They still bring me spices when they see me (my dad’s homemade wet masala is next-level), but it feels good to know that I can restock my cupboard on my own. It has also taken my cooking to new heights and yes, I can make a curry now.
Tips from the experts
Looking to expand your spice collection too? I asked two expert foodies to share their must-have items that every spice cupboard needs.
FATIMA SYDOW, COOKBOOK AUTHOR
“My favourite memory of spices is most definitely when my late mother called me into the kitchen to help her make supper. I was very young and eager and on the menu was a simple, but oh-so-delicious chicken curry. I watched her hands chop away at the onions, garlic and ginger and then as the cooking started, the aromas took over my senses. She gave me the go-ahead to start adding the spices. Decades later, this memory nudges me forward into my own kitchen.”
Fatima’s top 5 spices to cook with:
1. My Masala mix
3. Cumin (ground and whole)
5 Cinnamon sticks
LANDI GOVENDER OF THE TOCKA BLOG
“Growing up my grandmother would use spices to cure just about any cold I had. She loved making me warm golden milk using turmeric powder, cinnamon and honey.
Landi recommends getting:
1. A good chilli powder, for curries, rubs, soups and stews.
2. Turmeric is a staple in my kitchen.
3. Cinnamon is my favourite for the spicy warmth it brings to desserts, it also plays well with savoury dishes.
4. Cumin for curries, chutneys, breads and pickles.
5. Smoked paprika has a lovely smokey flavour that pairs well with both chicken and fish.