When Vivian and Myra Pereira invited us for their annual preparation of the East Indian specialty, bottle masala, we jumped at the chance.
Every summer before the monsoon hits, Bombay’s East Indian community begins to prepare a year long supply of the cooking staple, bottle masala (so called because of the beer bottles it comes in). It is a specially ground powder of dried red chillies and a mix of about 25-35 different spices. The highly guarded recipe varies from each family and is passed down from mother to daughter, continuing this way for generations.
On a particularly hot day last week, the Pereira’s front yard of their Ranwar cottage was carpeted with crisp red chillies drying in the sun. Myra uses 3 different kinds – Madras, Kashmiri, and Reshum Patti.
Photographs and video by Evren D’souza
Families usually hire local Maharashtrian women to come make the bottle masala, and Myra had 4 helping out this year.
After the chillies have dried, the women de-stalk and break them. The air is immediately filled with the disjointed orchestra of crunchy chillies, tinkling glass bangles and fast-paced Marathi.
Then they are mixed with spices like cumin, coriander, sesame etc. and roasted in an earthen pot (farmao) over a wood fire.
Next, the women use a large wooden mortar and pestle (ookhli and musal) to pound the mixture into a fiery powder, their skinny, leathery arms beating to the rhythm of chilly induced sneezes. The process usually takes about 2 days. After this is done the powder is sifted until a fine residue remains.
Finally the finished masala is packed tightly into dark beer bottles, ready to add flavour to some sorpotel or coconut curry.
Most families also sell bottle masala from their homes.
Here’s a short video of the process: