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A new mistress of spices

Pankaj Bhadouria, TV show host and 'MasterChef India' winner, discusses the secrets behind traditional spice blends

Pankaj Bhadouria.
Pankaj Bhadouria.

The stories of spices are fascinating, whether it is actual fiction a la Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices (1997), or historical treatises on the ancient spice route, or grandmothers’ tales of their legendary spice blends. The sound of a popping cardamom, the crackle of black peppercorns in hot oil, the fragrance of freshly ground garam masala—spices are the cornerstone of every Indian kitchen. Chef Pankaj Bhadouria’s The Secret’s In The Spice Mix: Fifty Unique Homemade Spice Mixes With Recipes, published by Penguin Random House India, is a tribute to this rich tradition.

Bhadouria, winner of MasterChef India, season 1, says that while spice blends are usually carefully guarded secrets, the women she met were more than happy to share their recipes. Bhadouria’s grandmother was one. “Their special secret masalas give women power in their kitchen and, like good chefs, they refuse to part with them. However, it comes from a place of good intention as they want to feel special and garner praise for their cooking," she says.

Her book is a useful resource of 50 unique home-made spice mixtures and ingenious ways of delivering them. Her recipes are helpful for both experienced cooks and beginners. Through the book, the recipes evolve from simple fenugreek-cardamom-clove blends to more interesting mixes that combine these with typically Western spices like paprika and rosemary. Apart from this, there are traditional favourites like a gunpowder blend that is reminiscent of Bhadouria’s childhood penchant for south Indian food.

The Secret’s In The Spice Mix also draws its inspiration from traditional kitchens across the country. It is a repository of the old and the new, and showcases exotic blends like lazzat-e-taam, one of the well-guarded secrets of Awadhi cuisine which blends about 25 herbs and spices like zarakhush (dried lemongrass) and kewra water and is kept in the custody of the family khansamas (chefs).

Pankaj Bhadouria’s ‘pani puri’ masala, which is derived from Lucknow’s version of this street snack.
Pankaj Bhadouria’s ‘pani puri’ masala, which is derived from Lucknow’s version of this street snack.

Similarly, there is Bhadouria’s version of the fabled “East Indian Bottle Masala" from the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, which comes with a recipe for a dish called chicken khudi, which uses this spice as its basic flavouring ingredient. Traditionally, this masala was packaged in old beer bottles, which also prevented them from spoiling. Women would prepare the mix (secretly) almost every summer and today, the authentic spice blend is available only in a few select shops specializing in East Indian ingredients in Bandra.

A schoolteacher from Lucknow, Bhadouria’s life changed dramatically when she won MasterChef India in 2010. The culinary world opened up to her and she took to her new roles with flair, emerging as a culinary educationist, a television anchor, a cookbook writer and chef. Bhadouria’s mixed parentage (she has a Punjabi father and a Bengali mother) contributes to her approach towards food. Having lived in Lucknow, she has also picked up influences from the city known for its culture and gastronomy. “On my shows I have tried to showcase my heritage by experimenting with Awadhi specialities like galouti kebabs as well as Bengali favourites like the bhetki paturi."

Bhadouria also channels her experience as a schoolteacher, by taking on the role of a culinary educator. She runs a culinary school in Lucknow, the Pankaj Bhadouria Culinary Academy. As someone who started cooking at an early age, Bhadouria is working hard to make cooking fun for younger people. Apart from regular courses. her academy also offers special 12-week programmes tailored for children. “In recent times, the number of kids at my school have increased dramatically and it is especially heartening to see both boys and girls enrolling for these classes. Cooking a successful dish gives children a sense of achievement," she says. This idea of children cooking also filters into her books and the second cookbook she wrote was especially created for little girls with a “Barbie I Can Be a Chef" kit.

East Indian Bottle Masala


1 tbsp allspice

50g Byadgi chillies

1 tsp black cumin seeds

½ tbsp black peppercorns

10 black stone flowers (kalpasi)

1 tsp Bengal gram

3 green cardamoms

1-2 inch piece of cinnamon

3 cloves

12 tbsp coriander seeds

2½ tbsp cumin seeds

1 tsp fennel seeds

3 tsp fenugreek seeds

100g Kashmiri chillies

1 mace blade

4 tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp nagkesar

2 tbsp poppy seeds

2 tbsp sesame seeds

1 star anise

10 tsp turmeric powder

1 tbsp whole wheat


Dry the Byadgi and the Kashmiri chillies thoroughly in the hot sun for at least two days. Dry-roast each spice separately over low heat in a heavy-bottomed pan for 5 minutes, tossing continuously. Cool the spices and grind all the ingredients into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle or using a grinder. Store in an airtight container.

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