Queens of Spice: The Mumbai Homemakers Keeping 'Bottle Masala' Tradition Alive
During the pre-independence era, when the East India Company claimed its power over most of the Indian subcontinent, a certain community in the northern parts of the Konkan belt was left out.
Many of the inhabitants of these parts were converted to Christianity by the Portuguese. However, they never let go of their roots and Konkani culture; this pride and heritage was treasured and passed down to the succeeding generations.
With the rise of the English-speaking Indian Christians (Goans) and the Mangalorean Christians, the community also felt an inherent need to set themselves apart.
And so, most of its members who had settled in the then cluster of islands, which is now the maximum city' Mumbai,' decided to call themselves 'East Indians.'
Why East, despite living along the western coastline of India, you ask? Because they adopted the name after the East India Company.
East Indians have been known to be a warm and close-knit community who take pride in their Konkan culture and rich culinary history.
Whether it is an absolute palate pleaser like Lonvas or their traditional khuddi (curry), deep-fried fugias, vindaloos, arros, or moile, each dish is a combination of distinct and flavourful ingredients.
They brew their toddy, wines, and khimad, and boast of a cuisine that is a combination of both traditional and western dishes.
Still, there is one ingredient which has stood the test of time and the ingredients of which continue to be shrouded in mystery.
The iconic East Indian bottle masala.
No western influence nor colonisation could affect the ritual of elders in the family mixing vast quantities of sun-dried spices once in a year to store them in bottles. These would then be distributed to their near and dear ones and even taken across the world, to remind non-residents of home.
Added to meat, fish, vegetable preparation and even curries, the speciality of this masala was to enhance its flavour, but never let it overpower the main ingredient.
Why is it called the 'bottle' masala?
The accurately measured and carefully fashioned mixture of 25, or sometimes even 60, ingredients, all of which were sun-dried, roasted and pounded would be stored in recycled beer bottles. As they were tinted, the masala would get protection from the sun.
Hence, the name 'bottle masala.'
Method of preparation
The much-loved masala combines a range of ingredients-stone flower, mugwort, nagkesar bulbs, red chillies (resham patti or Kashmiri), cumin, coriander seeds, turmeric, pepper, sesame, shah jeera, poppy, mustard, saffron, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and bay leaves.
Prepared in the harsh summers and stored in the beer bottles, these spices last for close to a year.
Back in the day, it would be a common sight outside an East Indian home to see women drying the spices near the verandah or on the terrace, roasting them on an old stove and pounding them with all their strength in a mortar with a pestle.
While many women still follow this method, many take help from their family or hire masalawaalis for this purpose.
The Better India got in touch with two homemakers who have been preserving the tradition of making bottle masalas and selling it not just to those around them, but also those settled abroad.
Gertrude D'abreo, a resident of Kurla, has been preparing the bottle masala for more than 40 years now.
"I remember standing next to my mother when she mixed different ingredients and spices to make the bottle masala, as I looked on in awe. Since I started making it on my own, 40 years ago, the quantity I produce keeps increasing every year. I finished making 22 kilos last week, and everything is already sold out," she beams.
This spice boffin combines 36 ingredients to make her unique masala, and last year, she made 30 kilos of it, without any help.
"While earlier I used to sell them to customers in bottles, over the years as logistics become difficult in bottles, the process has evolved to selling it to them in packets in kilos. Apart from my local customers, most of the masala that I prepare in the summers, travels once-a-year to bottle masala lovers as far as Canada, Australia, and even Germany. I do not deliver the masala to them; they come and pick it up!" she adds.
She also takes small-scale orders to prepare traditional East Indian food. Since a spinal fracture, she seems to have slowed down, but her masala continues to add magic to the food of people who add it to their dishes.
She also makes special order pickles from different vegetables, spices, etc.
Veronica Rodrigues is a homemaker in Kurla village, who sells her bottle masala for 1200 per kg, and has been following the ritual for more than 30 years.
A blend of 36 ingredients, her customers, include her near and dear ones, family, friends and all those who come to her in search of the unique masala.
Speaking to The Better India, she says, "I give the masala for pounding at a chakki in the vicinity. Each year I make about 20 kilos. It flavours every dish she makes from her chicken curry to vindaloo. The recipe that I follow is the same one that my grandmother passed down to my mother and my mother to me. I sell in packets weighing half, one kg and upwards based on requirements."
When I ask Gertrude what makes the bottle masala unique, she says, "When people add this masala to their food and realise how much it enhances the flavour of any dish, they have to have more. That is a very happy feeling for me because it takes time and effort to select and pick quality ingredients, and the final mixture. What more can I say? Simply put, East Indian bottle masala is the best."
If you wish to order this unique bottle masala, get in touch with Gertrude D'abreo on 9867358560.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)