Meet the Masalas

Spices are the essential building blocks in Pakistani cuisine. Let’s explore the types of masalas necessary for cooking Pakistani food.

Wholesale spices being sold in Jodia Bazaar (2020)SOCH Outreach Foundation

Spices in Pakistan

The history of spices being used in Pakistani food is perhaps as old as the first human settlements found in the Mohenjo-Daro and Harappan valley civilizations. While spice usage has varied over time and place, and in fact rapidly developed and expanded locally, the procurement and preparation of some spices has dramatically changed too.

Traders sell spices in the open in Jodia Bazaar (2020)SOCH Outreach Foundation

The basic spices present in almost every Pakistani household, no matter which part of the world they are in, are red chilis, either crushed or powdered, turmeric, coriander and cumin. Nigella seeds, cardamom, bay leaves and cloves are also commonly used in more complex recipes such as biryanis, qormas and certain vegetable dishes.

A mound of crushed red chillies laid out for sale (2020)SOCH Outreach Foundation

Pakistani food is known to be aromatic, spicy, packed full of flavor and herbs, primarily because many spices and herbs are produced in the country.

Dried Dundicut chillies on display in the market (2020)SOCH Outreach Foundation

Red chili powder, coriander, black pepper, turmeric, cumin, cloves and cardamoms are basic whole spices thanks to which spice mixes such as Garam Masala and Chaat Masala are made and used generously in local cuisine.

Chickpea lentils (Channay ki daal) (2020)SOCH Outreach Foundation

A dish as basic as Dal (lentils) is fragrant and packed full of flavor thanks to the spices added to it.

Dried long chillies on display in the market (2020)SOCH Outreach Foundation

However, the use of spices and herbs does not necessarily translate into peppery or chili heavy food per se. Spicy food is more commonly consumed in the southern regions of Pakistan, and as one travels north this tendency for fiery fare gives way to simpler and milder methods of spicing.

Freshly milled spices on display in Jodia bazaar (2020)SOCH Outreach Foundation

This does not mean food becomes less flavorful - spice blends change according to geographical locations and climates, local palates, as well as the availability of locally produced spices. For example, lamb chops - a favorite barbecue item found throughout Pakistan - in the south of the country is found to be more spicy, whereas in the northern sphere of Peshawar is simply grilled with salt and black pepper, allowing the intense flavor of the meat to come through.

A large container of Red chilli powder (2020)SOCH Outreach Foundation

From the 1940s up until the 1970s, Pakistani households mostly made their own spice blends at home.

Dried Kashmiri chillies on display in the market (2020)SOCH Outreach Foundation

Whole spices were purchased from local vendors in markets, after which the ladies of the household would create their own spice mixtures with recipes passed down from generations.

Crushed red chillies are a popular ingredient (2020)SOCH Outreach Foundation

From the pounding of coriander seeds and chilies, to making the more complex garam masalas and individual spice blends for specific recipes, (such as qormas and biryanis) women prided themselves on the magic they could create in their kitchens with their family recipes.

Exterior of a shop in empress market karachi (2020)SOCH Outreach Foundation

What used to be the somewhat onerous task of making spice blends at home has now become as simple as picking up a pre-prepared packet of masala off the shelf, a trend that has taken off globally too.

With the 1970s came the advent of companies that produced basic spices such as red chili powder, turmeric, coriander and cumin, along with spice blends for different household recipes. While it was a rocky start with people unsure of the mass produced spices, nobody could deny how easy it was to simply open a packet and have food prepared in a fraction of the time.

The advent of packaged masalas granted women a certain emancipation from their kitchen duties. What would take hours to prep for cooking could now be done in half the time. From barbecue items such as chicken tikka, bihari boti and fish fry, to the humble daal and chicken salan, the list of prepared masalas is endless and the export of these spices internationally contribute immensely to the economy. The only downside to this is perhaps the age-old tradition of passing down the recipes of spice blends and the method of grinding masalas at home diminishing slightly, much like the process of pickling and preparing home-made achaars.

Exterior of a shop (2020)SOCH Outreach Foundation

However, those who are passionate about their food can still be found buying their own whole spices and creating their own spice mixes at home.

Credits: Story

Produced by SOC Films
Project Director: Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy
Producers: Syed Ayub , Sameer Khan
Project Manager: Huma Shah
Director of Photography: Murtaza Ali
Photography: Karim Baig , Murtaza Ali
Photography Editor: Karim Baig
Additional Video & Photography: Khurram Victor
Exhibits Writer: Nazia Latif , Sameer Khan
Exhibits : Syed Ayub , Sameer Khan
Art Direction : Rahat Niazi
Associate Producer : Asad Pabani
Video Editors: Nina Zehri, Farhad Jamali
Color Grade: Sourath Behan
Assistant Editor: Mishal Adhami
Sound Design: Sameer Khan

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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