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A cocktail garnished with flowers.
The Ama Sutra cocktail at Saffron is made with mezcal, mango, cilantro, grilled jalapeño, and lava salt.
Kristen Loken

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These Bay Area Indian Restaurants Are Bringing the Masala Dabba Behind the Bar

Indian spice blends are typically relegated to stovetop preparations, but these restaurants are pulling them into flavor-packed cocktails

Sesame and ube have been proliferating across Bay Area bar menus for years, and at some high-end restaurants the buzziest phrase in drink-making is “nonalcoholic.” But three Bay Area restaurants are showcasing beverage programs with a fresh twist: Celebrating their bountiful Indian heritage, local chefs and bartenders are taking their flavor-packed masala dabbas behind the bar. With creative cocktails and sometimes low-proof libations, these Bay Area bar programs showcase classic Indian flavors like never before.

The multifaceted flavors of Indian cuisine come from a wide range of whole and crushed spices. Traditionally, these spices are stored in a multi-compartment bin known as a masala dabba — or masala dani as chef Manish Tyagi of Aurum in Los Altos calls it. An average Indian home kitchen may use upwards of 50 spices, but a classic, homestyle masala dabba holds only seven.

A multi-part container of ground spices.
Traditionally, spices are stored in a multi-compartment bin known as a masala dabba.

A masala dabba’s purpose is multifold. It not only allows easy access to a preferred set of spices, but also encourages cooks to creatively play around with them — it’s a sensory playground of flavors, textures, and aromatics. A single dish could have any combination of spices from the dabba, and pulling from multiple dabbas usually makes for more complex dishes. Indian restaurant chefs who typically have more than one masala dabba stock them based on what the spices inside will be used for. “That is what we learned to cook with,” Tyagi says.

Some kitchens dedicate a dabba for whole warm spices or garam masalas, others for blends, and so forth. Seasonal and regional flavor combinations to keep culinary creations fresh and edgy. For instance, Aurum’s menu includes a riff on a classic jhalmuri appetizer, which traditionally features puffed rice mixed with fried chickpea noodles and chaat masala, all tossed in mustard oil. In this dish, chaat masala brings together the tang of dried mango, the warmth and bite of ginger and black pepper, and the smokiness of rock salt and cumin. Aurum’s jhalmuri is even more dynamic. It’s served using a Dhungar method, accentuating the smokiness of the spices and mustard oil by serving the dish in a smoke filled jar.

Now, Indian restaurants are putting their training with the masala dabba to good use in the bar. Jeremy Harris, bar manager at Aurum, says the restaurant’s drink menu also reflects the diversity of the staff. “Our team comes from a wide array of cultural backgrounds (and they) contribute to every single cocktail that we develop,” he says. Aurum’s Pomelo Pani cocktail, for example, riffs on the traditional Indian neebu pani, which is a lemonade seasoned with rock salt and pepper. For this cocktail, they swap out the lemon with pomelo and use white pepper in place of black pepper to bring out familiar flavors without changing the color of the finished drink.

Similarly, Aurum’s sangria gets a boost from a house blend of Indian chai spices, while the Damask Rose cocktail begins with prosecco and layers citrus and rose with the bite of black pepper and turmeric, both classic masala dabba ingredients. Another drink reserved for special events, the Tandoori Pina Colada, uses a liqueur made from pineapple spiced with chaat masala, rock salt, and cumin, which is then roasted in a tandoor oven. Tyagi says the traditional masala dabba, or bin, plays a significant role in much of Aurum’s bar program. “I am inspired by the classic Indian spiced beverages,” he says.

A cocktail on ice garnished with mint.
Saffrons’ Rasa cocktail features ghee-infused bourbon, Allesio vermouth, Cynar, orgeat, mint, chocolate bitters.
Kristen Loken

Set just on the edge of the Berkeley campus, the compact two-level restaurant East Bay Spice Company also offers a cocktail menu that pulls influences not only from India, but also from the backgrounds of various staff members, spokesperson Jack Haze says. Here, a classic Indian staple like lassi gets a gin-forward makeover with mango pulp, cinnamon, and ginger syrup, while the bourbon-based Royal Charter blends chai syrup, spiced liquor, lemon, and orange. Other drinks feature classic garam masala, a spice blend made with cinnamon, pepper, cardamom and nutmeg. “We get to play around with everything from Mexican aperitifs to Indian whiskey to local and seasonal floral bitter liqueurs,” Haze says. “Many of our cocktails combine traditional spices with flavors from Latin, Middle Eastern, and European cultures, too.”

A bartender favorite is a biryani masala-infused drink with passion fruit and chile verde liqueur. The biryani masala includes black cardamom, Indian bay leaf, and a half dozen more spices from the masala dabba. In the past, the restaurant has pursued a collaboration with Oakland Spirits and used garam masala and tea to make Tradewinds Brandy for their cocktails.

At Saffron in Burlingame, chef Ajay Walia says the restaurant’s spice-infused cocktails help diners enjoy the food more deeply. “Overlapping the spices in the different dishes and cocktails will ultimately be the most flavorful and rich experience when dining at Saffron,” he says. He recommends pairing the For Your Eyes Only cocktail with the chutney shrimp, shrimp masala, or any seafood dish. Additionally, Saffrons’ Rasa cocktail, made with ghee-infused bourbon, Allesio vermouth, Cynar, orgeat, mint, chocolate bitters pairs well with the restaurant’s lamb meatballs, while the Ama Sutra, made with mezcal, mango, cilantro, grilled jalapeño, and lava salt is the perfect match with the Bombay sliders, General Tso’s cauliflower, or spice-forward dosas.

Across the Bay Area, Indian chefs and bartenders pushing the envelope with their bar programs, changing the expectations of diners by introducing them to classic Indian flavors in nonalcoholic, low-proof, and traditional cocktails. Each is taking guests into the world of nuanced flavors and techniques that are integral to Indian cuisine, all originating in a humble masala dabba.

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