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.
Bottle masala recipe – http://www.bottlemasala.com/Bottle_Masala_Recipe.html
How to use bottle masala – http://www.bottlemasala.com/Using_Bottle_Masala.html
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)!