East Indian Bottle Masala has a long and fascinating history. I first came across this vibrant reddish orange spice mixture at my friend Lorraine Gonsalves' house. She had brought her Bottle masala all the way to Toronto from Mumbai and had used it to make a delicious shrimp curry for us. Intrigued, i wanted to know what was so special about this masala. This is a unique masala blend created by the East Indian community of Mumbai and the sheer variety of ingredients that go into its making is staggering, ranging from 25 to 35 spices! Recipes are of course secret and only handed down within the family. Red chilies and whole spices are spread out in the hot summer sun to dry roast for 3-4 days, then ground by a special group of women who travel from house to house. These women are much in demand and have to be booked months in advance. They arrive armed with a long wooden pole and a large wooden bucket to roast and pound Bottle masala according to each family's specifications. This mixture is then stored in recycled dark coloured beer bottles (to protect it from sunlight as well as for easy sprinkling), hence the intriguing name.
After learning about this wonderful tradition, I had to try my own version of Bottle masala! Although mine uses just 23 ingredients and I roast the spices together for ease of preparation, it is aromatic and flavourful and the spices can easily be found in any Indian grocery store. It is worth making Bottle masala from scratch because the colour and flavour it imparts to the food is indeed special.
Use this fantastic spice blend to make dishes like East Indian Prawn Curry, Paella, Lamb Vindaloo or Grilled fish.
30 mild dried red Kashmiri chilies
20 hot dried red chilies
4 sticks of cinnamon (each 3 inches long), broken up
4 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tbsp each, whole seeds: cumin, fennel, white poppy, white sesame
1 tbsp each, whole spices and seeds: fenugreek, black mustard, black cardamom seeds, cloves, black pepper, allspice, sichuan pepper, green cardamom pods
1 nutmeg, smashed
4 each: star anise, mace flowers
6 tbsp ground paprika
2 tbsp each: turmeric, ground ginger
A generous pinch of ground asafoetida (hing), optional
Toast spices in batches, starting with the two kinds of chilies. Toast in a large heavy skillet set over medium heat until chilies darken in colour and smell roasted, about 3-4 min. Transfer to a large bowl.
In same skillet add remaining whole spices and seeds (do this in batches if you prefer). Toast until spices smell aromatic and darken, about 4 min. Add to chilies in bowl. Cool slightly.
Powder everything together in spice or coffee grinder until fine. Transfer to large bowl, add ground spices - paprika, turmeric, ginger and hing (if using). Mix well, transfer to an airtight jar and store in a cool, dark place.