May’s missing maushis: A Mumbai summer without the itinerant East Indian masala makers


Ever since I can keep in mind, synaesthesia has performed a very necessary position in my life. Numbers for me have genders. Days of the week have a particular hierarchy, with Sundays main the pack. And all my months are neatly divvied as much as kind a rainbow of colors.

May’s color has at all times been someplace on the spectrum between a buttery yellow and an earthy burnt Sienna. No huge shock there. Think shiny summer suns, freshly baked lemon chiffon muffins and sure, the indescribable hue of a ripe Alphonso.

But there are two extra shades in the household that actually outline the month and, by default, summer for me.

One, the almost-neon tangerine shade of freshly pounded East Indian bottle masala, and two, the amber-coloured beer bottles that it’s at all times saved in for longer shelf-life. Thus, the title — bottle masala.

While I’m not an East Indian by delivery, I’ve at all times been a giant fan of their tradition and, most pertinently, their delicacies. I’ve lived most of my life right here in Dadar West, Mumbai, surrounded by a close-knit, strongly matriarchal group of East Indian households led by genial aunties who made it their mission to indulge the budding foodie in me with their yummy curries and succulent roasts. Almost all jazzed up with the ubiquitous East Indian bottle masala. From the coconut milk-enhanced mutton lonvas to a spicy hen moile, the bottle masala reigns supreme.

Just like the 36-ingredient Moroccan ras-el-hanout spice mix or the Ethiopian berbere combine, East Indian bottle masala is made up of a bewildering number of spices, from the extra apparent Kashmiri chillies to the ‘Google-it-now’ nagkesar. The latter — I learnt only for the functions of this piece — can be known as Indian rose chestnut or cobra saffron, by the approach! Besides this, the advanced dry spice mix has a number of iterations, every with various measurements and ratios of spices.

More the merrier

I might not be exaggerating if I stated that each East Indian household makes use of a special recipe for bottle masala — some use 20 spices, some 30, whereas the most elaborate of the lot use as much as 40. But attempt asking any self-respecting East Indian prepare dinner to half with the recipe and they’ll sooner half with their lives. Such is the nearly militant stage of secrecy that shrouds the hallowed recipe.

In truth, I keep in mind an previous neighbourhood aunty as soon as telling me that East Indian moms by no means educate their daughters the way to make bottle masala for worry of them taking the prized recipe out of the household after getting married. They haven’t any such compunctions, I used to be knowledgeable, for incoming daughters-in-law. I relaxation my case.

This leads me to an important hyperlink, not simply to the entire bottle masala provide chain, but in addition to my very synaesthetically-heightened month of May — the masalawaali maushis. It is the rhythmic thumping sound that these singing, itinerant spice-grinding girls make whereas pounding the fragrant, roasted spices for bottle masala that I affiliate most with summer as nicely.

Illustration: Getty Images/ iStock
 

That May music has been missing this yr. Thanks to the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown, my yard is not going to be infiltrated this season by the pungent fumes and lilting melodies wafting from neighbourhood gardens. The maushis is not going to be coming this yr.

Travelling troupes

Mainly drawn from the native Maharashtrian Agri group, these ladies are usually at all times a lot in demand and have to be booked months upfront. They are at all times armed with their picket pounding vessel, the ukli, and its cohort, the mussal, a mace-like instrument with a metallic base to hit the components. These teams of women journey from home to deal with from early March to the finish of May to grind the annual provide of bottle masala in line with every household’s specs, ensuring to complete this necessary process earlier than monsoon units in.

Interestingly, although the maushis are consultants in the sifting, roasting and closing pounding of the spices, they are going to by no means absolutely know the closing recipe. Not solely will the home matriarch weigh every ingredient individually and hand it over to the maushis simply earlier than pounding, however as per custom she may also withhold one important ingredient that she is going to pound herself and add later to the closing combine.

One of the most enduring and endearing traditions of the maushis is the singing of ovis (which accurately means ‘strung together’) whereas they pound the spices. More particularly, they sing jatyavarchi ovi, specialised Marathi grinding songs which can be used as poetic metre for rhythmic prose.

One such ovi by Bahinabai, an unlettered 19th century peasant-poet from the Khandesh area of Maharashtra, involves thoughts and appears an ideal method to sum it up in instances like these. It says:

Get up at midnight, neatly set

out the grain

Begin working the grinding

stone

Be affected person, don’t speak again, maintain

your tongue

Let the reminiscences of your previous life

consolation you.

SUNDAY RECIPE

Bottle Masala

(Recipe courtesy Ann Dias)

Photo: Getty Images/ iStock

Photo: Getty Images/ iStock
 

Ingredients

1 kg dried crimson Kashmiri chilies

250 gm dried crimson Madras chilies

25 gm entire wheat grain

80 gm powdered turmeric

5 gm dagdaphool, additionally known as stone flower

200 gm cumin seeds

15 gm fenugreek seeds

500 gm coriander seeds

150 gm mustard seeds

250 gm poppy seeds

50 gm peppercorns

15 gm cloves

250 gm white sesame seeds

15 gm caraway seeds

14-15 inexperienced cardamoms

7-Eight black cardamoms

10 gm cinnamon stick

10 gm asofoetida

25 gm bay leaves

1 nutmeg

5 gm tirphal, additionally known as Japanese pepper

5 gm star anise

5 gm nagkesar, additionally known as Indian rose chestnut

15 gm fennel seed

5 gm mace

50 gm entire Bengal gram

5 gm allspice

Method

1. Precisely measure and dry all the components beneath the solar for 2 days, ensuring no moisture stays in them.

2. Over low warmth, dry roast the Kashmiri chillies and the Madras chillies for 8-10 minutes in a wide-bottom pan, ensuring to to not burn them.

3. Similarly roast the remainder of the components for 7-Eight minutes on low warmth or till they’re fragrant.

4. Dry grind the roasted components in a number of batches till advantageous, both in a big ukli or in a spice blender. You may additionally take the combine to a neighborhood mill to get it pounded.

5. To keep on with custom, tightly pack the bottle masala into amber- or green-tinted, sterilised beer bottles, sealing the high off with butter paper and scorching wax. Otherwise, one can even retailer it in an hermetic container or another lidded glass container.

(This makes for an roughly 2.5 kg yield of bottle masala, so regulate in line with desired amount.)

The Mumbai-based author and restaurant reviewer is obsessed with meals, journey and luxurious, not essentially in that order.

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