Lynda Hal­li­nan

In­spired by a trip to In­dia, Lynda Hal­li­nan de­clut­ters her pantry in search of more stylish ways to store spices.


spices up her pantry

My hus­band is a man of sim­ple tastes. Pro­vided our kitchen bench is home to the holy trin­ity of con­ser­va­tive condi­ments – salt, pep­per and Wat­tie’s tomato sauce – he’s quite con­tent. In­deed, were I to throw out every car­damom pod, cumin seed and ju­niper berry in our pantry, I can con­fi­dently say he wouldn’t no­tice.

When I moved in with him, I was some­what per­turbed to dis­cover that some of the spices in his kitchen cup­boards, most no­tably a packet of dried oregano and an un­opened jar of star anise, had been gath­er­ing dust since the turn of the cen­tury.

Best-be­fore dates be damned: I sus­pect most peo­ple pay lit­tle heed to the fine print on the sides of spice pack­ets. In fact, I’d go one step fur­ther and sug­gest that most peo­ple pay no heed at all to the sham­bolic state of their spice cad­dies, racks or cup­boards. I bet even uber-or­gan­ised peo­ple who re­li­giously change their sheets every Sun­day, clean their dish­wash­ers monthly and never set off the smoke alarm with a dirty oven are still guilty of stock­pil­ing old spices.

When a dear friend of mine re­cently put her house on the mar­ket, the first thing she did – even be­fore hir­ing a real es­tate agent – was de­clut­ter her spice rack. She picked it up and biffed it, lock, stock and smoked-pa­prik­abar­rel, into her garbage bin. (This may have been a tad hasty, as bak­ing cin­na­mon scrolls, brewing cof­fee with cloves or stew­ing fruit with mixed spice re­put­edly whets the pur­chas­ing ap­petite of vis­i­tors at open homes.)

You can buy dec­o­ra­tive spice racks at kitchen shops but I’ve never felt the need to cor­ral all those ex­otic flavours into al­pha­be­tised, air­tight jars that keep the fresh­ness in and pesky pantry moths out. Con­se­quently, when I’m mak­ing a Moroc­can tagine, ap­ple strudel, pick­led onions or my favourite red plum chut­ney, I’m forced to ri­fle through umpteen half-empty boxes jammed into a small wooden tray.

To be hon­est, neatly sort­ing my spices has never been high on my list of pri­or­i­ties and prob­a­bly never would have been, had I not taken a tour to a spice plan­ta­tion in south­ern In­dia in April. In a trop­i­cal food for­est

ABOVE: A metal masala dabba (left) keeps spices fresh and tidy, or you may pre­fer a rus­tic, an­tique wooden ver­sion (right).

in Thekkady, Ker­ala, we tippy-toed around clumps of car­damom and turmeric tu­bers un­der a canopy of ca­cao, clove and cin­na­mon trees. Given their in­tense flavours, most of these plants are re­mark­ably unas­sum­ing in ap­pear­ance; you wouldn’t or­di­nar­ily give the vanilla orchid (Vanilla plan­i­fo­lia) a sec­ond glance, while the epi­phytic pep­per vines (Piper ni­grum) that cling to the trunks of mighty teaks look as wor­ry­ingly in­va­sive as English ivy.

We came, we saw, we con­quered the spice plan­ta­tion’s Cus­toms-sanc­tioned shop, buy­ing vast quan­ti­ties of nut­meg, or­ganic vanilla pods, fresh green pep­per­corns, all­spice, cin­na­mon and cas­sia bark to take home.

How do you store your spices? In­dian house­wives tra­di­tion­ally keep theirs in in­di­vid­ual metal con­tain­ers in­side a two-lay­ered round metal tin known as a masala dabba. My high­school chum Kusam Fausett, whose fa­ther Rama Bhana was four years old when his fam­ily em­i­grated to New Zealand from Gu­jarat, has used one for years. Her masala dabba boasts ground cumin, ground co­rian­der, curry pow­der, turmeric, chilli pow­der and garam masala in the top layer and cloves, fenu­greek, carom (also known as ajwain or ajowan car­away), whole co­rian­der, car­damom pods, cumin and mus­tard seeds un­der­neath. The whole spices are pul­verised as re­quired, us­ing her cof­fee grinder.

Kusam’s dad was a sin­gle fa­ther with a mar­ket gar­den and lit­tle time for ex­per­i­ment­ing at meal­times. “We ate roast lamb every Wed­nes­day and fish and chips every Satur­day,” she jokes, “with lamb or chicken curry, roti and dahl every other day.”

The first time I ever ate a proper In­dian curry, rather than the left­over mut­ton my mum would boil up with onions, car­rots, pota­toes and a large spoon­ful of Gregg’s curry pow­der, was at Kusam’s fa­ther’s table. Or at least I should say it was the first time I tried to eat a proper In­dian curry, be­cause even though Rama served us be­fore he added his home­grown chill­ies, it set my taste­buds on fire.

Twenty-five years on, this sea­son I picked a peck of my own “Wild­fire” cayenne pep­pers (that’s enough to fill a nine-litre bucket), whereas Rama still grows his chill­ies by the pad­dock. He’d prob­a­bly chuckle at the sight of my tidy new spice cab­i­net, for he has no need for neat rows of dinky bot­tles and pot­tles with hand­writ­ten la­bels; Rama uses so many spices that he stores his in re­cy­cled jam jars.

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