Maneet Chauhan's Essential Masala Dabba

Born and raised in the Punjab province of India, Maneet Chauhan gravitated towards hospitality at a young age, and began working in some of India’s top hotels. By age 20, she had decided to move to the United States and attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, from which she graduated with several awards. 

Chauhan proved her skill beyond the classroom by beating out forty male competitors for the executive chef position at Chicago’s new Indian-Latin fusion restaurant, Vermillion, in 2004. After several years and awards at both the Chicago and New York City location of Vermillion, the chef moved to the South. Landing in Nashville, Chauhan successfully opened up several Indian-inspired restaurants (Chauhan Ale & Masala House, Indian street food restaurant Chaatable, Chinese restaurant Tansuo, and modern diner The Mockingbird), where she remains today.

In addition to her restaurant career, Chauhan also holds an impressive amount of appearances and victories on competitive cooking shows. A recurring judge on Chopped, Chuahan has also competed in several Iron Chef seasons. Most recently, she won the Food Network competition Tournament of Champions, even donating her prize money of 40,000 dollars to Nashville restaurants affected by the pandemic. 

Chaat: Recipes from the Kitchens, Markets, and Railways of India, by Maneet Chauhan and Jody Eddy

When asked the key ingredient to her success in both her restaurant career and competitive cook, Chauhan reaches for her treasured spice box. Whether she is drawing upon her own upbringing or professional education, Chauhan’s knowledge and understanding of flavor allows her to add layers to every dish. 

Masala dabbas are spice boxes common in Indian kitchens, usually placed out on a countertop for easy access. Typically made of stainless steel and featuring an air-tight lid, these circular containers hold six or seven smaller katoris filled with different aromatic spices. Several small metal spoons encourage adding spice to taste instead of exact measurements and help prevent cross contamination. 

The most useful feature of a masala dabba is its easy customization. Each container is filled with spices that appear frequently in dishes and can be easily replaced by something else from the cabinet. Someone’s masala dabba can tell a lot about their origins or style of cooking. While most hold the essentials–cumin, turmeric, red chili powder and garam masala–the inclusion of certain ingredients like black mustard seeds or curry leaves in a dabba masala denote an emphasis on southern Indian cooking. Containers of tejpat or ghost chili insinuate the same for northern India.

A Guide to Spices from Maneet Chauhan

For veteran chef Maneet Chauhan, her masala dabba is crafted perfectly to reflect her style of cooking. 

  • Turmeric’s earthy flavor is grand, but almost secondary to its beautiful golden hue and proposed health benefits. 
  • Kashmiri red chili powder has a spicy and smoky flavor with an accompanying fruity aroma. 
  • Chaat masala is a popular mix of spices most notable for the inclusion of amchur, a dried mango powder that is tart and fruity. Although similar to garam masala, chaat masala’s inclusion of black salt gives it its unique sulphuric smell. 
  • Green cardamom pods, smaller and less smoky than black cardamom, are known for their aromatic qualities, which Chauhan recommends to utilize in cocktails and desserts. 
  • Star anise’s sweet fragrance lends it similar endorsements from Chauhan. 
  • Black mustard seeds are preferred in south Indian cooking for their pungent flavor, which becomes sweeter and nutty upon being fried. 
  • Panch phoron is an herbaceous five spice mixture from east India made of various seeds.

To find these spices, Chauhan recommends visiting your local Indian store. If there is not one available, they can easily be ordered online

Cook like an Iron Chef with Chauhan's cookbook Chaat: Recipes from the Kitchens, Markets, and Railways of India, available on the Local Palate Marketplace.

Video by: Jonathan Boncek

Edits by: Jack McAlister

Production by: Maggie Ward

Location: Charleston Wine + Food

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