The Nose Forgets Nothing

My new masala dabba.

My new masala dabba.

For Christmas this year, I received a masala dabba from my wife. Masala means spice, I think, and dabba means box–in what language, I’m not sure. I like to imagine that every Indian household has one of these, the way every North American one has salt and pepper shakers. This may be entirely wrong, but then again, when I opened up the lid for the first time, it smelled like the inside of every Indian home and restaurant I’ve ever been in. One of my best friends in grade school was Indian, and I always thought of the distinctive and delightful fragrance of his house as a single smell, but I can see now how wrong I was. It’s really a combination of several smells: coriander, fenugreek, paprika, cumin, red chili flakes, cardamom, and turmeric, among others.

Opening this masala dabba reminded of the time when I went to my Indian friend’s house for a birthday party. We knew each other from kindergarten onward, so this was probably in 1976 or so, when I was six or seven years old. My mother had let me know ahead of time that the D_____ family might have tastes different from ours. She told me if I was served something I didn’t like, I should be polite and try it anyway, because that was how one learned things in life–by not being afraid. I kept one eye peeled for exotic Indian food at the party, but everything appeared normal, right down to the cake and ice cream.

Then came the scavenger hunt. Candies had been hidden all over the house, and I found a round, white ball of some confection or other under the couch. I bit into it and was shocked by a horribly pungent stink and a burning sensation in my mouth. I spit it out on the sly, hoping no one had noticed. I felt guilty at my lack of cultural tolerance, but a fellow has his limits, after all.

Many years later, I stumbled across a box of similar-looking Indian candies in someone’s closet. My nose recognized them instantly. They weren’t candies at all. They were mothballs, soaked in camphor.

Anyway, I’ve been casting about on the internet for recipes to try with my new masala dabba. I’m easily overwhelmed by too much information–even a decent-sized menu will cause me to become paralyzed with indecision–but I found this beauty recently, and made it with great success. I highly recommend it to anyone else who was lucky enough to get a masala dabba for Christmas: Spicy Red Lentil Stew