Paying homage to the rhythm of the East Indian Bottle masala

The East Indian masala mid way through a day of grinding
Highlights: This post talks about the suburb of Bandra in Mumbai and the East Indian community that lives there. Their food and the East Indian Bottle Masala that is core to the kitchen. It is based on oral history narratives of an East Indian family. The post has many pictures so please scroll on 

Maharashtra Divas

Last Monday was the first of May which is observed as the Maharashtra Divas here in memory of th day in which the state of Maharashtra was created.

Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, has been my home for close to two decades now. Within Mumbai, it has been the suburb of Bandra where I have pitched my tent during my time here.

I had an interesting experience this Maharashtra Divas. I visited the home of Aloysius Dsilva, or chef Aloo as he is known, on that day. Aloo is an East Indian and the East Indians are considered to be one of the original residents of Mumbai and of Bandra too. In this post I am going to tell you about what happened day and there was lots of great food involved in case you are wondering.

Chef Aloo prepares an East Indian prawn curry
which is made with mangoes and bottle masala
Meet East Indians from the west of India

The East Indians are Catholics who converted to Christianity at the time of the Portuguese. Aloo wryly told me that his ancestors were part of the 'dowry' along with the islands of Mumbai which the British had got from the Portuguese. 

Please check the link at the end of the post to know more about their history.

Last vestiges of the East Indian villages of Bandra

Aloo lives in Bandra like I do. He told me that his family has been living here for the last 5 generations. Before this, they were in Bassein or what is known as Vasai now. After moving to Bandra, the  family lived in a cottage in one of its by-lanes. This cottage was raised to the ground sometime back.  A new house was built for the family to in its place and the extended family lives there in individual apartments. Remnants of the old house remain in the form of the red windows in the Dsilva bungalow which were made with wood from the original cottage. When you look out from Aloo's house, you can look at a couple of East Indian bungalows which still remain. Aloo tells me that these houses had verandahs which opened on to the yard. In a time before Facebook, people would sit here and chat with their neighbours.

Memories of the past lives on cheerfully today
The original residents of Bandra

The Koli fisher folks who lived near the coast at places such as Khar Danda and the Parsis and the East Indians were the original settlers of modern Bandra Aloo tells me. The British apparently used to live in an equivalent of a 'gated community' in what is Bandra's Pali Hill today.

Bandra has been my home for the last twenty years or so and I love its eclectic spirit which is a reflection of its original settlers.

Chef Aloo is an East Indian and is married to
Firuza, a Parsi. They represent two communities
That were among the first to settle in Bandra

Apart from a language Konkani, the East Indians would speak in Marathi too Aloo tells me. Aloo's childhood sweetheart and now wife, Firoza, is a Parsi from Bandra. The afternoon that I spent with them was one of discovery about Bandra for me.

Firuza told me that the Carter Road promenade in Bandra, which is now a rocky promenade, once had a sandy beach. She use to go there in her childhood. I noticed large and pretty shells from the sea beach on the floor of their powder room. Firuza told me that her late father in law had collected from the Carter Road beach.

Once upon a time Carter Road had a beach
These shells are from there

The East Indian Bottle masala

Chef Aloo invited me over on 1st May as it was a special day in the house of the Dsilvas this year. It was the day on which the East Indian Bottle masala for the year was going to be prepared.

This masala is traditional to the East Indian community. Anything between 25 to 35 odd spices are used to make the masala. Each family has its own recipe for the spices used and in the proportion in which they are to be used and this formula is passed down from generation to generation.

Aloo tells me that they making of this masala is a four day long process which includes the procuring, cleaning and roasting of spices as appropriate. The spices would include Kashmiri chillies and Bhavnagari chillies and whole turmeric and whole garam masala such tez patta, cloves, cardamom, cinamon and asafoetida (heeng) and many more local spices such as dargarful and so on.  

When the ingredients are ready for use after days of prep, a group of ladies come home to make the spices. They sift and blend the masalas and hand pound the spices in a barrel with wooden maces till the masala is ready. This process takes the whole day and has many steps including, roasting, grinding, sifting and grinding again and blending. The neighbourhood is enshrouded with the aromas of the spices on the day in which the masala is made. At the end of the day's work, the masalas are put into bottles and they stay for 2 to 3 years. Traditionally they were stored in green and amber coloured beer bottles to avoid being spoilt by the harsh sunlight. Hence the name 'bottle masala'. Rocks of heeng are put into the bottle for preservation.

Aloo is a caterer and stores his masalas in large glass jars. These jars are not coloured but he keeps them where the light doesn't hit the contents. He gets his masalas made every year as he uses this at home, for his catering business and his restaurant business and some of this masala also goes to relatives across the world.

The spice ladies

The hard working women who made the masalas at Aloo's house belong to the Agri community. They travel across East Indian houses in Mumbai during March to May to pound the masalas. The idea is to take advantage of the sun and to finish making the masala before the rains set in. The ladies told me that they have been doing this for 35 years. 

I was impressed by the work of these masala bais (spice girls and my phrase). Their work was strenuous and physically demanding. Yet, they pounded away at the spices with rhythmic determination. I am sure that food flavoured with the masala created with such effort and sincerity would taste magical.

Pounding the masala as if they are
'many in body, one in mind'

Mixing the masala

Aloo's mom sat and guided the ladies, while Feroza got chilled water and Sprite and salted Bombay Ducks for them. Apparently the later is part of the tradition.

Aloo tells me that some East Indian now get their spices ground in mills. This works out to be cheaper but doesn't give the texture and vibrancy that Aloo looks for. Some families make the masala once a year and others once in two or three years. My guess is that nuclear families among East Indians might depend upon other family members or on shops to buy their spices today. You can get buy East Indian masala in Catholic run meat shops in places like Bandra today and sometimes this is even sold in pouches.

Mama Dsilva oversees the masala making process

Roasting turmeric for the masala

Careful tending

A variety of roasted chillies is crushed and added to the mix
and undergoes many stages of work during the day

Blending in masala

Sifting the spices before they are ground again
Roasted garam masala

The bottles for the masala
The East Indian masala feast

Aloo has been witness to the ritual of the masala being made at home from his childhood. Today he is a world travelled chef. He hasn't forgotten his roots though. To his customer he offers east Indian dishes made with recipes that he has learnt from his father, who loved to cook and is no more, and his mother of course. He also prepares Parsi dishes, often based on recipes from his in law's kitchen, in his takeaway joint named Chef Aloo's in Bandra.

Chef Aloo told me that he he can make at least 30 traditional dishes with the East Bottled masala and all of which taste different. I was privileged to not only be witness to the masala making but I also got to feast on dishes that Aloo had made with the masala when I visited him. The masala that he used was the one made the prepared the previous year.

East Indian sorpotel and methi shoots salad

There was the pork sorpotel for starts. Like the biryani, sorpotel too has many versions as I have discovered over the years. There is the famous Goan one of course and then the lesser known Mangalorean and the East Indian ones. This won't make me very popular in Mapusa I know, but the East Indian sorpotel, which is less tangy and is drier than the Goan one, is my favourite. It is made with a pork shoulder says Aloo and is best eaten a week after it is cooked. The modern East Indian version doesn't use pork blood unlike the Goan one but both use all parts of the pork meat including offal such as liver, kidney and spleen apart from the meat. At the heart of the dish is the pork fat of course. Aloo's version is a bit less red in colour than other East Indian sorpotels that I've had. He said that he uses slightly lesser bottle masala than normal. For me this was one of the best pork dishes, let alone sorpotels, that I have had and I have had quite  few!

Methi salad
Methi Salad

There was a salad that Aloo served with it and no, those are not micro greens in the picture! There are methi shoots which you get at the local Bandra market said Aloo. Apparently both Aloo and his brother love making salads with these green methi shoots, sliced white onions, tomato and toddy vinegar. Firuza tells me that you can use lime juice if you can't get the toddy vinegar. The aroma from the latter was heady as was this salad and it's worth trying to get hold of this vinegar from the Bandra Bazar if you can.

This sort of salad is what I feel we should make the rest of the world try out rather than our rushing to get rocket and lettuce and quinoa to make salads. 'Think local and eat local,' is my favourite mantra these days. When you open your eyes to what's around you and discover great food, like I did at Aloo's, then you will realise why this makes so much sense.

Bombay Duck thecha
East Indian bottle masala, garlic, coriander

Thecha becomes a verb

Smoked dried Bombay ducks are part of the thecha

The final thecha

Then there was a condiment that Alu made that was as rustic as it gets. He smoked salted Bombay ducks, which he bought from the local markets, in the wood fire in which the turmeric for the East Indian masala was being roasted. You can do this in the micro wave too Aloo said but you won't get the smokiness. The wood used is from mango trees.

Aloo then made a thecha or a Maharashtrian pesto (pounded mix). He pounded fresh garlic cloves, fresh coriander leaves and East Indian masala and smoked salted Bombay duck in a mortar and pestle. This made for a brilliant condiment which could give the sambal belacan (dried shrimp paste) of Malaysia a run for its money. To think that I didn't even know of the thecha till I went to their house and this is food from my neighbourhood!

Prawn curry

Aloo also made a fresh seasonal prawn curry. For this he heated an heirloom cast iron pan on the wood fire to which he added oil and then some green chillies for heat. Then in went white onion bulbs, which are in season, and semi ripe mango slices from a mango tree in a neighbouring garden. Then the blessed East Indian masala and then some rice starch broth or congee to make the sauce. He finally added tiny prawns and cooked them for a minute to make a subtly flavoured and delicious prawn curry which is different from any prawn curry that I have had and very exquisite too.

The East Indians like the folks from the Malvan coast believe that smaller prawns taste better than bigger ones.

Prawn curry with thecha and pav
Crab curry 

And if you thought that was all, it wasn't. Aloo had got crabs from the local Khar Danda market the previous day. He cooked the crabs for ten minutes with a roasted East Indian Bottle masala mix and freshly grated coconut curry. You should have this curry at least a day after it is cooked he told me.

The curry had a delightfully woody and earthy taste to it and was very well seasoned. We sat together and cracked open the crabs with our fingers in Aloo and Firuza's drawing room. We reached the sweet meat of the crab easily. The crab meat was complimented, rather than bullied and smothered, by the curry. It went perfectly with the steamed rice made with rice grown in the outskirts in Mumbai. Interestingly the uncooked rice is kept in a bottle which has neem leaves to keep worms away. 

Crab curry rice

I can bet you that the lunch I had with the D'Souzas that afternoon is the best lunch that anyone had at Mumbai that Maharashtra Divas and I say this very rationally.

You have heard of synchronised swimming
How about synchronised hosting?

Feroza takes a well deserved break

The boys dig into the crabs
Paying homage to Bandra, to Mumbai and to Maharashtra 

Buddhims talks of the value of respecting the place where one is based and of feeling a sense of gratitude to the people who live there. It encourages one to feel rooted to the community and to try to contribute to it. It says that this is the best way to grow.

I find this to be a very pertinent thought for people like me who are immigrants. Staying anchored to one's roots and simultaneously cherishing one's adopted home and its people makes complete sense to me.

After celebrating Maharashtra Divas with the East Indians of Bandra I am now inspired to find out more about the heritage of Bandra and its food through the oral history of its people and I promise to share what I learn with you.

The spices that flavours Aloo's kitchen

A phone video where chef Aloo tells me about what goes into the  East Indian masala:

Wikipedia on East Indians

While I was invited home by chef Aloo, you can try some of his cooking including East Indian and Parsi dishes by ordering from chef Aloo's here