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.