Thursday, August 5, 2010

Mistress of Spices

Yes, I know. It's the name of a rather Chocolat-esque novel and invariable movie that flopped severely at the box office, despite the big star cast and big name direction. What else to expect for a movie based on a book whose blurb reads:
"Magical, tantalizing, and sensual, The Mistress of Spices is the story of Tilo, a young woman born in another time, in a faraway place, who is trained in the ancient art of spices and ordained as a mistress charged with special powers....Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...Spellbinding and hypnotizing, The Mistress of Spices is a tale of joy and sorrow and one special woman's magical powers." (Yawn....)
But my tale is a different one, a not so magical one. No tantalizing, spellbinding, mesmerism, stuff. Just the spices that have been sitting around in my pantry for years, maybe eons.

I marched purposefully through the rows at my local Indian grocery, determined to sort through the colorful boxes and bags of Sambar powder. My precious supply, hauled in luggage way back in the (almost) pre-9/11 days, had lasted me several years, stashed away in the freezer. But one evening, I woke up to the horror of realization. It was gone, all of it.
Having just bravely declined to say I needed anything from India (The hubby had just gone and come back a few weeks ago.), I was now in a bit of a quandary. Never mind, I was sure, MTR to the rescue, just as it had done for Rasam powder. I happily popped the bag into my shopping basket and headed home to cook the evening's meal.

I sniffed at the powder as I spooned it into the tamarind extract. Did I detect the faintest hint of other spices than what I had before? Cinnamon, perchance? I grabbed the packet cover from the counter and squint at the ingredient list. Yes, I guessed right. But what in the world is cinnamon doing in Sambar powder? My mother, mother-in-law, aunts would all run out screaming if they were offered sambar with cinnamon.
Maybe my kids would be OK with this new-fangled concoction. It was backed by the recipes of one of the premier culinary talents in Indian restaurants, after all.
But no. S tasted it and stated baldly. "This sambar tastes weird'. M refused to have her usual cuppa-soupful. "I don't like the taste and smell."
What's a desperate mom to do? I could have caved in and called my mother for a recipe to be ground up. But then I remember the secret recipe that I have been using comes from my mother-in-law, so the proportions may not be quite the same. Next, what should magically appear on my counter,but a ragged little book, a coverless diary, filled with special recipes, handed to me when I was a new bride by my loving sister-in-law. "Guard this with your life", she whispered "It contains the secret to a man's heart..."
Or actually, it was just a collection of recipes she had tried out while learning some new 'fancy recipes' at a short-order culinary school for young ladies. "Rainbow cassata", "Naan", "Chole masala", etc. But at least on one page, there was a cryptic reference to plain old 'Sambar powder'. Just an ingredient list and proportions, but nothing else.
I substituted the measurements by weight with proportional handfuls, gamely dry roasted everything and set it aside to cool. A couple of rounds in my coffee (spice) grinder and I had a coarse powder that looked nothing like the original powder I used, but smelled very much like it. I tasted it gingerly (and no, there is no ginger in this, unlike some other sambar powder variants.) It was very peppery, but would have to do.
The next evening, I tried it in sambar again, with some success. It wasn't at the right level of heat though, I would need to tinker with the chili/peppercorn proportions the next time.
And so I did. The taste is perfect now, even with the older spices that I finally managed to use, emptying out a couple of bottles after all the years in the pantry. But it still isn't yellow enough. I need to increase the turmeric proportion slightly next time, without descending into bitterness (in taste, of course, not emotion).
But that is a challenge that I am sure to overcome, having turned by the dint of necessity and years of mundane cooking experience, into a Mistress of Spices.


kochuthresiamma p .j said...

can well understand your predicament. i dont use readymade powders cos family is spoiled by home made. so i make my own, on the spotwith powdered spices like dhanya,chile, asofet, methi etc etc. works like roasting & powdering - almost.

ever since orkia -norwegian company- bought MTR, some products taste different - like the sambar which targets north indian consumers too.

Sujatha said...

So MTR has sold out to an MNC, that's news to me.I've never tasted the pre-Orkia sambar powder, so I don't know if their recipe is the same as before or has been adjusted for a wider market. A couple of other 'sambar' powder brands I checked had things like ginger powder in them, so I had to nix those.
Your family must have gotten used to the proportions that you use and the taste will likely be very fresh and pungent, as opposed to roast/powder/store for a while.
I've taken to grinding in small quantities, so each batch will likely last only a few weeks. They keep reasonably well in the less humid climate that we have. Or I can store them in my fridge.
My kids now prefer my version of 'milakappodi' for dosas and idlis. Even though my recipe doesn't come close to those of my mom and mother-in-law.
But attempting Sambar powder was a brave new frontier for me.

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

Your family must have gotten used to the proportions that you use
not the most perfect, must confess. but being used to mine, they think it's the best:). but i feel sambar is something which cannot misfire in a major way.
do u know the typical keala sambar is different from te tamil sambar?i make the latter always - easier and healthier.

Sujatha said...

I confess, I don't know the precise difference between 'kerala sambar' and 'tamil sambar'. The only recipes for the former seem alarmingly like my own, so is mine a 'kerala sambar', a 'tamil sambar' or a 'keralite tamil sambar', or just a plain 'Amma's sambar' ?

Lekhni said...

Cinnamon in sambhar powder? That sounds like the sambhar one makes for bisi bele bath (basically the usual sambhar but with cinnamon and cloves added). That might explain why MTR uses this recipe?

Sujatha said...

But then, why does MTR have a separate mix for BisiBhelebhath? Or maybe they are just repackaging the same powder mix with added clove powder for the BBB mix. Hmmmm...modern assembly lines and processing might have dictated their sambar powder recipe, then.
In earlier days, I believe cinnamon was not used in many vegetarian households because of its association with meat curries and such. My aunt has stories about how long it took for her to get used to cinnamon flavors without gagging.

Amit said...


Would it be possible to get your recipe for making sambhar (*not* sambhar powder)? I've tried it a few times, but something is missing.

BTW, my email address is upsidedownworld at gmail - the blog has been put into cold storage for now.