Hot and Spicy: The East Indian Bottle Masala

In 1492, a pioneering navigator set sail from Palos de la Frontera to find an alternative sea route to India, bypassing the Ottoman Empire, which had blocked the old route to India via the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. This explorer was Christopher Columbus, a Genoese, who, after years of lobbying for financial support, had finally convinced the Crown of Castille (Spain) to invest in his westward voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, a navigational feat never attempted before. In 1492, on his first voyage, Columbus landed in the islands of the West Indies, convinced he had discovered India (which he had not). Successive voyages by Columbus and other explorers like Amerigo Vespucci, John Cabot, Joao Fernandes Lavador, and Pedro Alvares Cabral led to the discovery of North and South America, collectively known in Europe as the New World.

Before the arrival of Europeans, Mesoamerica was ruled by the Aztecs, characterised by their highly developed social, political, and religious systems. The Aztecs were also known for their advanced agricultural practices; they had domesticated crops unique to the region, including maize, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, squash and chilli peppers, among many other spices, fruits and vegetables. The discovery of the New World led to the widespread transfer of plants, animals, culture, human populations, technology and ideas between the New World and the Old World (Europe, Asia, and Africa). This transfer, known as the Columbian Exchange, profoundly impacted both the Old World and the New World, leading to significant cultural, ecological, demographic and economic changes. The Columbian Exchange facilitated the transfer of crops and animals previously unknown in the Americas and Europe. For example, crops such as maize (corn), potatoes, tomatoes and peppers were introduced to Europe, while wheat, barley, rice and sugarcane were brought to the Americas.

Another explorer, Vasco da Gama, was backed by King Manuel I of Portugal, who wanted to rival Spain in the race to colonise the New World and spread Christianity. Unlike Columbus, who had set sail westwards, Vasco da Gama followed a different route, going south to reach the southern tip of Africa, a route first charted in 1488 by the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias. Rounding the Cape of Good Hope, Vasco da Gama reached Mozambique (which became a Portuguese colony), Mombasa, and finally Malindi, from where he set sail for India, arriving in Calicut on May 20, 1498.

In subsequent expeditions, the Portuguese quickly established their naval supremacy along India’s western coast and gained control of maritime trade in the Indian Ocean region. They captured Goa from the Bijapur Sultanate in 1510 and acquired more territories in Gujarat, Maharashtra, and the Konkan through the Treaty of Bassein (1534), signed with Bahadur Shah, ruler of the Gujarat Sultanate. The treaty allowed the Portuguese to establish control over the seven islands of Bombay, where they actively promoted the conversion of the native population to Catholicism. Intermarriage between the Portuguese and Indians resulted in a mixed community of native Christians, who, in later centuries, identified themselves as East Indians.

The Portuguese colonization of India influenced the eating habits of Indians through the introduction of new vegetables, fruits, and spices from the New World as part of the wider Columbian Exchange. These exotic crops arrived in Goa via the Portuguese colonies in the Americas and Africa. New spices also reached India from the Maluku Islands in eastern Indonesia, which, at the time, were the only known sources of nutmeg, mace, and clove in the world. From their base of operations in Goa, the Portuguese captured the Maluku Islands in 1511, from where they shipped nutmeg, mace, and cloves to India. The new spices gained wide acceptance in the existing palate of Indian spices, which already had a global reputation.

It is inconceivable to think of Indian cuisine without a dash of chilli or clove, spices that were once alien to the Indian subcontinent yet have become an integral part of its gastronomy. Due to their Portuguese origins, it is unsurprising that the East Indian community is famed for spicy dishes. If you have lived in Mumbai long enough, it is hard not to have come across East Indian cuisine, which, over time, has adapted itself to reflect a mixture of Portuguese, British and Maharashtrian culinary influences. Quintessential to the aroma and taste of East Indian cuisine is a potent masala prepared from a variety of exotic spices, known colloquially as bottle masala. The name derives from the empty beer bottles in which the masala was packed and stored to keep them airtight and fresh. The masala is a staple in East Indian community kitchens and is used in the preparation of various dishes.

The first step in the preparation process is drying, which starts in March when temperatures start to rise. The spices are laid out on the street or on rooftops, exposed to sunlight for two to three days. Chillies bought from wholesalers tend to retain some moisture, and they must be thoroughly dried until they are crisp and crunchy. Once dried, the spices are roasted whole. In the past, in East Indian neighbourhoods like Vasai (Bassein), it was common to find groups of women (called masalewalis) going from house to house to do this task. They were hired to roast the spices on an outdoor stove and then manually pound them with a mortar and pestle, which took several days of collective effort. This process was labour-intensive and time-consuming, but nowadays, pounding is done in mills, which have specialised machines to do the same task much faster. For example, 1–3 kg of masala can be ground in a mill in 4–5 hours. The powder is sieved to remove lumps and pounded again. This process is repeated several times to ensure a smooth blend and fine grains. The blend is then packed in airtight containers, which have largely replaced bottles. Bottles do remain in use occasionally though.

The recipe for making bottle masala varies from household to household and may include a mix of 25–60 different spices. The base is prepared from a chilli blend made from Kashmiri chillies, which give the masala its signature pungency and deep red hue. Kashmiri chillies are mixed with Teja, Resham Patti, and Bedki, among other chilli varieties. Staple spices from the Indian kitchen, like cumin seeds, coriander seeds, clove, cinnamon, cardamom, peppercorn, turmeric, mustard, and poppy, are also added. Rare spices, like mugwort, stone flower, cobra saffron, etc., are also added to the mix.

The skill of a mixer lies in measuring the exact proportion of each spice, which makes for its distinctive flavour and aroma. Mastery of the recipe takes years of skill, experience and practice. Ask any matriarch of an East Indian family for the exact recipe, and you will find it to be a closely guarded secret. The recipe is passed down within the family, from the mother to the daughter to the granddaughter, through hands-on experience in the making process. This generational knowledge is entirely intangible, with no cookbook or written source. In the old days, family members came together to prepare the masala over several days. This fostered a sense of collective collaboration, thereby reinforcing the bonds that tie the East Indian community together.

Over the years, the popularity of bottle masala has declined due to several factors. Consumers now prefer to buy ready-made masala from the market instead of making it at home. The art of bottle masala has been kept alive by Veera and Natasha Almeida, a mother-daughter duo, who run the popular Instagram page @Jevayla_Ye (89k followers) and ‘The House of Jevayla Ye’ page on Facebook, where they share East Indian recipes and techniques from their kitchen. Together, they run their family business, selling bottle masala, fish masala, pickles, and dried fish, among other homemade recipes that are much sought after by cooking connoisseurs.

Literally translating to ‘come eat’ in the East Indian dialect, Jevayle Ye has been a boon to many East Indian families who, for various reasons, cannot invest the time needed to make masala at home but still want to use homemade spices. ‘Unlike other masalas, bottle masala doesn’t overpower the dish and therefore is extremely versatile,’ says Natasha Almeida. Though various factory-made spice blends exist in the market, bottle masala remains uniquely East Indian and holds a special place in the East Indian community as a symbol of their culinary tradition and heritage.


Making of Bottle Masala:

Typically, one might purchase spices from vendors selling dried chillies at wholesale marketplaces. The masala's bright red colour and pungent flavour are derived from Kashmiri chillies used to make the base, though other varieties may also be used.


Spices purchased at wholesale markets are sun-dried for two to three days to remove moisture. This usually happens once a year in the summer. After the rainy season ends in October, some households may decide to make another batch of masala.


Spices are laid out for drying in the courtyard of Marthahil, a heritage home at Vasai that has been the residence of an East Indian family for more than 150 years. The masala-making season usually lasts from March until May. Earlier, drying spices in the open was a common sight in East Indian neighbourhoods, though the practice is declining as people nowadays opt to buy masala from the market.


Each family uses different types of chillies to make the base. Kashmiri chillies are a staple in many dishes because of their deep red hue and ability to temper the heat without overpowering the dish. Other pungent chillies, including Resham Patti, Bedki, Bird’s Eye, and Sankeshwari, can also be used to make the base.


Wheat is the only ingredient that is not a spice. It helps thicken the curry that the masala is used to cook. Some households might choose to use chana dal instead of wheat. Similar to the preparation of the spices, the dal is also dried and roasted.


Spices are laid out for drying in the verandah of a house in Vasai. Old houses typically had a long verandah or an inner courtyard where this activity was done. In houses that do not have a verandah, the spices are laid out by the side of the road or on rooftops.


The proportion and variety of spices used in bottle masala are closely guarded secrets passed down within the family. The ingredients range from popular spices like lal mirch (red chilli), tejpatta (bay leaf), dalchini (cinnamon), elaichi (cardamom), and javitri (mace) to rare spices like mugwort, stoneflower, and Nagkesar (cobra saffron). On average, 25–30 spices are used in a masala, but it can range from as few as 20 to as many as 50.


Once the spices are dried until crispy, each is roasted to a specific temperature, ranging from mild to high. The oils released during this roasting process enhance the aroma and flavour, giving it a more complex and robust taste.


The East Indian community masala is prepared differently from the method used in the Goan community, wherein the spices are pounded fresh without having been roasted. Drying and roasting are time-consuming processes, and there is no shortcut to achieving the same flavours without them. In the old days, family members came together to prepare the masala, a process that took place over several days. This fostered a sense of collaboration, thereby reinforcing the bonds that tie the East Indian community together.


Every spice, including haldi (turmeric), is dried and roasted whole. To soften the root, whole spices like haldi are gently mashed before roasting.


Preparing the ideal mix requires patience, training, and skill. The skill of the making lies in accurately measuring the right proportion of each spice, which can affect the pungency and heat of the blend.


In the past, in East Indian neighbourhoods like Vasai (Bassein), it was common to find groups of women (called masalewalis) going from house to house to do the roasting and grounding. Manual pounding was a labour-intensive process spread over two or three days. Over the years, the pounding process has become entirely mechanised. Families now send the masala mix to mills, where it is pounded by machines.


The raw ingredients are mixed at the mill. The mixture is finely ground into powder form. A single kg of masala takes about 4–5 hours of pounding and grinding to blend the powder effectively.


The pounding machine has a mechanical sieve attached to it, through which the masala is sieved to remove lumps and impurities. The mills are operated by women, who did the work manually in the past using a mortar and pestle.


The grinding and sieving processes are repeated several times to ensure a smooth and even blend.


Stacks of containers and bags sent for milling are marked with family names for identification. Once the spices are fully powdered, they are kept at the mill to be collected in a day or two. Each family has a unique mix of spices, which must be pounded separately so that the flavours and aromas do not mix.


Bottle masala gets its quirky name because it was traditionally stored in empty beer bottles. The airtight bottles preserved the original aroma and flavour of the masala and kept out moisture.


In the final steps, the bottle is sealed with a cap, tightly wrapped in cloth and tied with a string. East Indian families recall a time not so long ago when they collected empty beer bottles to be repurposed for storing masala. Over time, glass bottles have been phased out and replaced with airtight containers, which can store larger quantities and are easy to stack. Bottles are still used, although sparingly.


Veera Almeida runs her business from home, making and sharing her recipes online through social media. The ingredients and preparation style are passed down through generations in the family, from mother to daughter to granddaughter. The skill of mixing spices is learned through years of apprenticeship in the kitchen rather than by relying on a cookbook.


Along with her daughter, Natasha, she runs the popular Instagram page @JevaylaYe (89k followers) and ‘The House of Jevayla Ye’ page on Facebook, where the mother-daughter duo shares the preparation processes of dishes from East Indian cuisine. In their own words, ‘The House of Jevayla Ye venture aims to introduce you to our humble authentic East Indian masalas. Sukhala!’ <a href="https://exhibits.jioinstitute.edu.in/spotlight/harshnath-temple/feature/the-harshnath-temple-divine-abode-of-shambhu-on-harsha-hill/edit#ftn1">[1]


Jevayla Ye translates to ‘come eat’ in the East Indian dialect, which is the basic idea behind Veera Almeida’s cooking venture. The spice blends are packed in airtight pouches with illustrated branding, representing the East Indian community and their association with spices.


In addition to their signature bottle masala, Veera and Natasha Almeida make fish masala, puri masala, and indyal (vindaloo) masala. Though various factory-made spice blends exist in the market, bottle masala remains uniquely East Indian and holds a special place in the East Indian community as a symbol of their culinary tradition and heritage.


Footnotes:

[1] The House of Jevayla Ye (@houseofjevaylaye), https://www.facebook.com/houseofjevaylaye/