Brands that started off selling single spice powders have now diversified into region-specific spice blends like Ambur Biryani Masala and Nellai Puli Kulambu Mix.

Spice market in IndiaPicxy/Navin1474
Features Food Tuesday, April 20, 2021 - 11:47

Spices are synonymous with Indian cuisine. Watch any cooking or travel show, more often than not, the words ‘spice’ and ‘colour’ are used to describe Indian food. And in kitchens across the country, great importance is given to the spice mix used in any dish, so much so that most families have their own unique mix of spice blends for a particular dish. This means that no two meen kulambus will have the exact same flavour profile and no two sambars will taste the same. Each person has their own way of making a dish, and if it is a specialty, the recipe is a closely guarded secret.

As Marryam H Reshii succinctly puts it in her book, The Flavour of Spice, “From north to south India, there’s only one consensus about garam masala, and that is how useless branded ones are in comparison to what is made at home. That’s about the only thing that most people agree on because the defining factor about this key spice blend is how it differs not only from one state to another but also from family to family.”

For a country that’s obsessed with spices, not much is known about its origin. According to Marryam, who is also a food historian, only turmeric, black pepper and green cardamom are native to India. She says that it is still a mystery how all the other spices found their way to India and how Indians have made them their own and co-opted them into their recipes and cuisine.

She gives the example of saffron and turmeric to elaborate on her point. “In Kashmir, everyone uses red chillies, turmeric and saunf (fennel seeds) powder. Turmeric is not something that's even grown in Kashmir. Turmeric grows in Erode, which is far away from Kashmir. That's the whole point. Who brought it to Kashmir, how did it reach this far, when did it reach is still open-ended. Apart from several anecdotes, I have not come across any concrete answers for that. In Kashmir, we use saffron only in Kahwa. But saffron is grown only in Kashmir in the whole country. But in Gujarat and Rajasthan, saffron is used extensively in their cuisine. How did these spices travel like this?” she questions.

How so many spices found their way into India remains an unanswered question, but over the years there has been a transformation in the way these spices are used in Indian kitchens.

From grinding dry spices and preparing spice mixes for one-time use to depending solely on spice powders to run the kitchen, the preferences have undergone a massive shift. A major reason for this transformation is the beginning of women’s participation in paid jobs outside the home. As more women started to step out of their houses for work, they had less time to freshly prepare the spice blends needed to cook. Since cooking at home predominantly is still a woman’s job, the demand for ground and ready-to-cook masalas increased, which made the lives of women much easier. So how new is the concept of readymade masalas?

Not that new according to Rakesh Raghunathan, a food historian, chef and the founder of Puliyogare Travels. “There are references of curry powders and mulligatawny soup powders being made for the British when they moved back from India after 1947. The concept of packaging spice powders and blended spices was there even during the times of the British but mainly for export markets. So, I would think when women started working, it grew in India too,” he explains.

When Pritha Sen, a food historian and writer, moved to Bengaluru in the mid-eighties, she found more spice mixes that catered to regional taste buds. Similar was the story in Goa, she says.

"This has been happening also because the country was becoming smaller in some sense. People were beginning to appreciate others' food tastes. But they didn’t want to go to the trouble of creating it all over again," she says, adding that the evolution definitely started from lack of time. The mixer grinder was available in the market, but it was largely unaffordable for the middle-class. Hence they depended on these packets of ground spices.

In the Indian local market, the demand for pre-packed spice powders and mixes grew in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1975, Sakthi Trading company was founded in Erode, Tamil Nadu, to trade turmeric. Erode and its surrounding areas are known for good quality turmeric. A few years later, the company ventured into pure spice powders like turmeric, chillies and coriander. The constantly increasing demand and the need to provide ‘easy cooking’ options to women across the country prompted the launch of the brand ‘Sakthi Masala’ in 1997, which has now become a household name for masala blend powders.

Similar is the story of Annapoorna Masalas and Spices, which was founded in 1975 in Coimbatore. Though the company has been around for over four decades, it wasn’t until after 2010 that the company officially launched its range of spice powders and mixes.

“Indian cuisine is very varied and expansive. Even in Tamil Nadu, the sambar you eat in Chennai is very different from the sambar you get in Coimbatore. Companies like us have started to realise that in order to cater to the local market, we need to get into their cuisine and bring out a product,” says Vijay Prasad, the Executive Director of Annapoorna Masalas and Spices. Also as a food scientist, Vijay Prasad’s role in the company has been to identify local and unique tastes across Tamil Nadu and come up with products to cater to that demand. This is the story behind Annapoorna’s Nellai Puli Kulambu Masala, Dindigul Mutton Kulambu Masala, Dindigul Biryani Masala and Ambur Biryani Masala. When asked what the difference between Ambur biryani and Dindigul biryani is, Vijay Prasad points to the spice mix in both the dishes.

“Ambur biryani is a red chilli-based masala. Dindigul biriyani meanwhile wouldn't have any red chilli in the dish. The pungency comes from green chilli and other spices,” he tells TNM. 

Eastern Masalas started in 1983 with single spice powders and then added spice blends to its product portfolio in 1985. Since the eighties, several brands have entered the market with more novel offerings to cater to the variety of demands of the Indian palate. In the recent past, even big conglomerates like ITC and Tata have entered the market to claim a share in the Rs 40,000 crore pie (as of 2018).

With spice mixes and powders becoming a runaway hit with homemakers and working professionals, how are chefs dealing with its onslaught in the market?

“Maintaining consistency is a key factor in this industry. When I initially came into the industry, there was a big 'No' from professional chefs for blended masalas. In recent times, however, it is changing. There is a good acceptance for masalas among chefs also. One (reason) is they get consistency in the product. Second (reason) is time and the cost involved in the grinding and the production of blended masalas,” Vijay Prasad points out.

In the last few years, there has also been a resurgence in the preference for freshly-ground spice mixes in food. And many people seem to be embracing traditional ways of cooking and going back to the mortar and pestle to grind their spice mixes at home. But, Pritha says that this trend is mostly seen in those who focus on the finer nuances of food. “There is also a backlash happening when people say freshly ground masalas have more taste and texture. It comes from people who are intent on finer nuances. But for the masses, it is all about utility. If you think about it, it is only a minuscule percentage of people who are privileged, who have servants, cooks, etc, who have the time and energy to do all this elaborate cooking,” she says.

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