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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

Spices

Spices explained

From top, clockwise: cumin, cloves, star anise, black cardamom, green cardamom, cinnamon bark, bay leaf, dried chilli.

Centre: coriander seeds

"What to put in your masala dabba? For me, the ‘your choice’ blend is the most fun & the most important as it forces me to try new recipes and flavours. But sometimes I do get obsessed with one spice and use it in everything! Curry patta or leaves just bring to life all vegetable dishes & add such an amazing aroma – it’s an unbeatable taste and fragrance. I also went through a cardamom in everything phase but this works best in sweets / desserts. 

For me there are no rules and restrictions in cooking, I feel one should let the flavours speak to you and mix and match as you please – there is not a wrong way to do things.

And it’s not very often or virtually never that I weigh ingredients – everything is andaza or by approximation – the result is that no dish turns out to the same taste every time!! Which can be a disadvantage but also a welcome surprise.

I sprinkle and add stuff until I hear my mother’s voice – in my head – saying – "Isn’t that enough?"

Words by Kanta Gopal

Chinta's spice container

The duck (not swan!) spice container

"It was made by a craftsman who probably lived near a temple, and these sorts of craftsmen were not trained craftsmen at any particular school or anything, but they had skills which they put to very good use.  

You can see some coloured paintings there and a temple over there which is really not a temple, it’s the Taj Mahal, and the Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan in memory of his wife who died. It is made of white marble and even to this day, is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. 

This comes from Delhi and it’s got hinges back there which you can see, and it’s got a base on which it stands. I actually had a very nice silver tray in which I had water and I used to put some water lilies around and then set the duck in it, with candles and it was very beautiful but very nostalgic as well."

Words by Chinta Kallie

Chinta's spice container

Chinta Kallie, portrait by Fran Monks

"When I came to England there weren’t any spices that I could actually buy, there was only one shop on Cowley Road and they just stored basics so it was [a] question of talking to my Indian Indian friends who were at college. I was at Somerville at that time and then the others were at colleges like Balliol and St Anne’s and New College and so, whenever they went back to India, I would say ‘please get me a pinch of saffron or some nutmeg or some cloves’. And so that’s how I managed to actually keep it full of very fragrant and aromatic spices which are so essential for Indian cooking."

Words by Chinta Kallie

Getting Indian spices in 1960s Oxford

About the artisan who made the duck

Spice duck story