From time immemorial, Indian women have been making their own spice mixes, the basis for delicious meals like chicken curry, mutton varuval, vegetable curry, dhal, briyani and so much more. Back in the day, it was common practice for women in the household to buy, clean, roast and assemble a concoction of spices to send to the nearest flour mill to be ground into various powders.
A spice mix is a carefully calibrated constellation of spices paired together and dry-roasted to release flavour and aroma. When a spice is dry-roasted, the flavours become more intense and this is reflected in the final product, which is typically ground to a fine powder and packed with flavour. Examples of spice mixes include fish and meat curry powder and garam masala.
Fast forward to the 21st century and things have changed dramatically. Modernity and progress have led to convenience and a wide array of commercial spice mixes, all easily available in supermarkets around the country. This sheer ease has resulted in a whole new generation of home cooks whose knowledge of spice mixes are limited to what’s available on the shelf. Few are able to distinguish the individual spices in curry powders or even know how spice mixes are made. And fewer still are willing to make it from scratch.
This is why the art of making homemade spice mixes is – sadly – a dying one. But still, glimmers of hope exist. Despite the decline in both interest and inclination, a few intrepid home cooks still continue making these labours of love.
The spice queen
As I walk into Padmasani Paranjothy’s beautiful home, the intoxicating aroma of spices instantly stirs a rumble in my stomach. It is spice-roasting day in Padma’s house, and she is busy preparing spices to send to the flour mill later on.
Padma is a bubbly, energetic 64-year-old who still makes her late mother’s homemade curry powder. The recipe is nearly 80 years old and has been preserved in the family to this day.
From the time she was a child, Padma remembers her mother making curry powders, turmeric powder and even chilli powder.
“At that time, my mother couldn’t afford much, so she bought all the stuff and did it herself. In fact, those days, my mother used to grind her own chilli powder and turmeric powder because they weren’t sold at the time,” she says.
But it is the family’s precious curry powder recipe that has survived the passage of time. In fact, Padma now makes the curry powder in large quantities for everyone in her extended family, including her daughter and nieces who live in Perth, Australia.
“My mother made the curry powder for a major part of her life. And then, my sister-in-law took over and she was doing it until she moved into an apartment 10 years ago. And that’s when I took over from her,” says Padma.
For the past decade, Padma has been regularly buying an assortment of spices like dried chillies, fenugreek, fennel, cumin, black pepper, turmeric and curry leaves to make the curry powder. Because she makes it for so many family members, she normally buys everything in bulk, including 6kg worth of coriander seeds!
“The last time I went to the Indian store in Brickfields to buy my spices, the lady in the store looked shocked and asked, ‘Why are you buying so much?’ So I said, ‘I make my own curry powder.’ And she said, ‘Oh, it’s very seldom that we hear anyone doing that’,” says Padma, laughing.
After buying the spices, Padma sets about cleaning them, removing sticks, stems and dirt that may have been trapped in crevices and putting some of the spices through a sieve to ensure they are completely clean. Most of the spices are then left out in the sun to dry.
“It’s not a big job, it’s just the cleaning process – you have to clean all the spices, so that takes time. And it takes two to three days in the hot sun to really get the curry leaves and dried chillies crispy and dry,” she says.
Once all the spices are ready, Padma dry-roasts them in batches in a clean wok over heat. Every time she roasts a batch, she touches the spices with the tips of her fingers. “It has to be hot to the touch,” she explains.
When that is done, Padma puts all the spices in large buckets and drops them off at the Narayana Moorthy Flour Mill in Bangsar, where they will be ground into powder. The flour mill accepts spices for grinding as long as the weight is more than 1kg.
Later in the day, Padma collects the ground curry powder (she makes 8kg worth of curry powder each time!). As soon as she gets home, Padma leaves the powder to cool on newspapers, as she says it is extremely hot when collected. Then, she packs it in 500g airtight packs and distributes them to various family members.
“Eight kilogrammes of curry powder is a lot for one person, so I distribute it around. And still, the curry powder lasts me more than six months and I cook every day,” she says, laughing.
Padma, her sisters and sister-in-law are all acknowledged to be fabulous home cooks. The sisters are all vegetarian (as was her mother) and were all part of the pioneer team of volunteers who cooked in acclaimed local Indian vegetarian restaurant Annalakshmi. Their recipes and skills were so valued that to this day, Annalakshmi still uses Padma’s mother’s curry powder recipe.
“I think if people say our cooking is good, it’s because of the curry powder, rather than anything else,” says Padma, ever humble.
Although Padma only uses the curry powder (which is the equivalent of fish curry powder) for vegetarian curries, she says it would go well with a lot of curries, so it can be used in fish or seafood curries or even to add flavour to fried dishes.
Aside from the curry powder, Padma also makes milagu-jeera powder (pepper-cumin powder), a recipe that was introduced by her sister-in-law and which the family uses for dishes like Sri Lankan parappu. In the future, she hopes to make her own chilli powder.
“I’m going to try to see whether I can dry the chillies and do my own chilli powder. I want to see what it looks like when when I do it myself, because the commercial chilli powder looks very red, so I’m not sure if there is colouring in it,” she says.
Padma says she realises that she is a rare breed, one of very few home cooks who still continues this tradition of making homemade spice mixes – and rarer still, going to the flour mill to grind it.
“There are still people who do it, but they’re probably older, I think. Because the younger ones work all the time or they live in apartments and don’t have space, so it’s a bit more difficult for them. Even for me, I don’t know anyone in my group of friends who still does it. And I don’t think my children will do any of this. They use my curry powder, but I don’t think they will go to the extent of making it, although I am hopeful,” she says.
Still Padma is determined to press on and continue making her mother’s heritage curry powder for as long as possible. “I’ll do it as long as I can, because it’s my mother’s recipe. I love it and it’s authentic,” she says.
PADMA’S CURRY POWDER
Yields 8kg of curry powder (recipe can be halved or quartered)
50g curry leaves
1.5kg dried chilli
6kg coriander seeds
500g black pepper
Wash, sieve and drain cumin of water as quickly as possible. Leave to dry in the hot sun.
Wash curry leaves, drain and leave to dry in the hot sun for 1-2 days.
Clean dried chillies and turmeric and leave to dry in the hot sun (dried chillies for 1-2 days until crispy).
Clean coriander seeds, fenugreek, fennel and black pepper, removing dirt.
When all the spices are ready, dry-roast each spice individually in a clean wok until hot to the touch. When done, put in a container and take to the flour mill to grind. If making at home, quarter the recipe and grind in a spice grinder. Keep in an airtight glass bottle for up to six months.
The spice newbie
Growing up, 31-year-old administrative executive Sheena Haikal had fond memories of her mother grinding spices.
“My mum used to make her own spice mixes when she was younger. I remember how she used the grinding stone (ammi kaal),” she says.
As an adult, Sheena took the convenient route of many of her contemporaries and bought commercial curry powders. But still, she felt that something was missing.
“Previously I used commercial curry powders, but the aroma and taste were never the same. I have tried many brands, yet nothing beats homemade – the taste is so much more delicious,” she says.
So six months ago, Sheena started making her own homemade spice mixes, consulting her mother (who had given up making it and couldn’t remember all the ingredients) as well as Google. After researching and improvising, she came up with recipes for a whole range of homemade spice mixes like garam masala, briyani powder, meat curry powder, fish curry powder, rasam powder and sambar powder.
“I did a lot of trial and error before coming up with the perfect measurements and ingredients,” she says.
Most of the spice mixes use the same base ingredients like coriander seeds, black peppercorns, dried chilli, fennel and cumin.
Sheena makes only 500g of each spice powder at a time, and this lasts her three months. She says the process of making homemade spice mixes, especially in smaller quantities, is easier than most people think.
“You only need the spices, a pan to dry-roast, a grinder and a little courage,” says Sheena, who skips the process of drying the spices under the sun.
Still, Sheena says she understands why most people her generation opt for commercial curry powders, as until recently, she too was a consumer.
“Making your own spice mixes has become a dying art because it is time-consuming, people are not sure of the spice ratios or they just prefer to buy it rather than make it. Previously, people made their own spices because they would not compromise on taste and there were not many products available in the market. They also lived in bigger families, so making their own spice powders would have been cheaper.
“These days, you can get spices everywhere, either local products or imported, everything is available at your fingertips. And people live in nuclear families now, they don’t need spice mixes in bulk, and they do not eat Indian food every day since there are thousands of food options nowadays,” she says.
Still, having made her own spice mixes, Sheena says the taste is incomparable and she would definitely encourage others to make their own. In fact, she is doing her part to start a movement of sorts by sharing her spice mix recipes with the 170,000 followers on her Facebook page Sheena’s Cooking Passion.
“I definitely encourage my followers to make their own spice mixes, because there are no preservatives or artificial colouring and it’s more hygienic and has a far better taste and aroma,” she says.
Although Sheena admits that her recipe posts on spice mixes often yield a lot of requests for her to sell them (something she is considering doing), equally she is heartened that there are people who end up following her recipes.
“Many people have tried my homemade curry powder and the feedback has been good,” she says.
SHEENA’S GARAM MASALA
Yields about 500g of garam masala
½ cup fennel
½ cup cumin
½ cup coriander seed
20 cardamom pods
15 bay leaves
10 star anise
In a clean, dry pan, dry-roast spices together for 10 to 15 minutes on low heat.
Let spices cool, then grind in a grinder till fine. Keep in an airtight container for up to three months.