How bottle masala made by East Indians of Bandra makes any dish taste good
I don't think I could have had a better introduction to bottle masala. I was working in advertising and one of my friends from work, Rajesh, invited me for lunch. He had just moved into a paying guest room in Mumbai's Bandra neighbourhood and had acquired one of those small gas burners. He said his girlfriend, Genesia, would cook us lunch and all we had to do was buy chicken and some rotis from a place that made them fresh in a tandoor oven near Bandra station.
Rajesh and I managed to muddle our end of the job; when we got back to his room we discovered we'd lost the chicken and spent ages trying to find it, before we realised we had left it dangling in its plastic bag from the handle of his motorbike. Luckily the crows hadn't got to it, and we got it back to the room where Genesia had fried some chopped up onions and garlic and then shaken in some dark red masala. She fried it a bit, filling the room with promising aromas, then added coconut milk and when it was bubbling, threw in the chicken and some kokum and in 10 minutes it was all done.
I can still remember how wonderful it tasted. Rajesh and Genesia are married now and I have eaten a lot of wonderful food at their place, but that chicken curry still stands out. Perhaps it was because we were young and hungry and nostalgia is always the best seasoning, but I also think that masala played a role. Because of its potent red shade I assumed it would be dynamite, but the flavour wasn't too spicy at all, but had a beautifully rounded savouriness, with subtle woody and warm notes. Genesia told it was called bottle masala and was made by the East Indians, a community that lived in large numbers in Bandra and whose name demonstrated an admirably individual approach to logic. They were the original Christian inhabitants of region around Mumbai, converted by the Portuguese who had set up settlements in places like Bassein and Chaul as North Konkan counterparts to their stronghold of Goa. Religion apart, this community had remained quite close to its Konkani roots, with many rituals and recipes that were quite close to their Hindu counterparts.
Bombay's growth, in the 19th century, was good news for the local Christians, who were well-positioned to work with the British rulers. But they were less than pleased to find that the city's prosperity started attracting Goan Christians, who were soon competing for the same jobs. To differentiate themselves the locals decided to adopt a new name and the name they chose was East Indians, after the East India Company. The fact that this made them East Indians in Western India didn't seem to matter, though in time a further level of confusion would be added when people abroad started referring to all Indians as East Indians, to distinguish them from the West Indians of the Caribbeans, which would make the community East Indian East Indians from Western India.
But what do these confusions matter when they have bottle masala. This is a special bend of spices that East Indians make every summer, a ritual that can still be seen in a suburb like Bandra, despite the way it has become increasingly built-up and crowded. Somehow, terraces and courtyards are still found where spices can be kept out for drying and then at a particular time these groups of women come with long poles and wooden buckets. They roast and combine the spices in the proportions prescribed by each family's recipe, and then, pounding rhythmically with the poles in the bucket, reduce them to powder, and put the masala in bottles for use through the rest of the year. The bottles are beer bottles, for several reasons: they are dark glass, so light doesn't cause the spice powder to deteriorate, their long-necked shape makes them convenient for gripping and shaking into a pan and, since East Indians have a sensible attitude towards alcohol, there's never any shortage of them around.
A great deal is made about secret spice recipes and the arcane ingredients that go into them. But general recipes have been published in East Indian cookbooks, like the one produced by the Ladies Sub-Committee of the Bombay East Indian Association and a more recent one by Chef Michael Swamy who is part East Indian himself. The recipe in the first book lists 21 ingredients, from chillies to kebabchini (allspice), while Swamy gives two - a simple one with 22 ingredients and a more elaborate one with 27, including ingredients like nagkesar bulbs, mugwort (maipatri) and lichen (dagadful)!
These ingredients add to the mystique of bottle masala, but I have to say, after trying them out both separately and in several different bottle masalas (all from people willing to sell or gift them, since most commercial versions taste like sawdust), I am a bit sceptical about how much they actually matter. Far from being exotic and expensive, most are from plants that grow wild in the region like Artemisia vulgaris, which is maipatri, and the ironwood tree, which produces nagkesar buds. These are the sort of jhadi-buti that find their way into traditional local medicines, and they have no special taste other than various bitter or woody notes. Some of this can be detected in bottle masala, but mostly I think they are added on the why-not principle, bulking up the final masala and perhaps helping each family boast about their secrets.
Looking at the bottle masala recipes, beyond these local herbs, and most of the standard spices, like cloves, cinnamon and cardamom, none of which are present in such quantities as to be dominant, what stands out are two things — a large amount of chillies and a small, but significant amount of wheat. The chillies are mostly Kashmiri chillies, which give an intense red colour, but have only a mild heat. They are the reason for that dark red of the masala, but also the reason why it is deceptive.
The wheat is roasted, just like the spices, so it adds a warm toasty note. But what is even more important is that it will combine with the liquids of the curry to act as a thickener (some blends add ground dal which will also help with thickening). The importance of Indian masalas as thickening agents is often overlooked, but it is one reason why they have large quantities of dried coriander, which gives a mild, citrusy warmth, but which is just as important for absorbing and bonding with liquids to make them thick and good to eat mixed with rice or scooped up with roti.
I think, in the end, bottle masala works so well because it is actually simpler than it seems. It does not seek to seize control of a dish, in the way most other masalas do. Bottle masala is happy to let the main ingredients take centre stage, while it provides a mellow backdrop. You can use it with chicken, mutton, fish, shellfish, beans or other vegetables, and it always taste good and doesn't leave your palate (and, later, other body parts as well) burning. As befits the easy-going East Indian sensibility, it is the most laid-back of spice blends, ready to help make almost any dish taste good, but never by dominating, instead always working in unison with the other ingredients, harmonising for real food happiness.
taken from here: http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2012-08-17/news/33249761_1_masala-east-indians-mumbai-s-bandra
A typical recipe: http://cookadoodledoo.wordpress.com/2009/01/12/east-indian-bottle-masala/