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Every time a cousin, auntie, or uncle came to visit us from Malaysia, they’d bring an extra large, designated suitcase carefully stuffed to the brim with asam laksa-flavored Maggi instant noodles, vibrantly colored jelly cups, pandan extract, and other goodies we couldn’t find in suburban Minnesota in the ‘90s. Prized above all was Baba’s Meat Curry Powder, a heady and fragrant blend of ground spices including cinnamon, star anise, fennel, nutmeg, and coriander. It would be packed into their luggage, layered like lasagna sheets between snacks and clothing. As soon as our visitor landed and settled in, the ceremonial unpacking of food treasures would ensue, and the deep green packages would reveal themselves and make their way into our pantry. Every time my mom made goat curry, she would retrieve a packet and spoon out a precious portion of Baba’s curry powder, perfuming the whole house with the spice blend.
How did Baba’s curry powder become such a vital part of our family’s culinary history? Back in the ’60s, when my mom was a teenager, vans started making the rounds in the residential neighborhoods of Kuala Lumpur selling various pantry staples like rice and roasted, milled spice mixes to local housewives. Before this, my Didu—or maternal grandmother—and my great-aunt would have to toast and grind the spices themselves, and these mobile spice shops offered convenience and the promise of time saved. The Baba’s brand started just like those other vans, and it became so popular that the spice blends could eventually be found in conventional grocery stores. Like many Malaysian families, that’s when Baba’s became part of our family pantry too. Didu replaced her small-batch spice mixes with Baba’s to make her goat curry. Years later, when my mom moved to America, she took Didu’s recipe—and packages of Baba’s—with her.
For me, the curry powder has become a pantry staple that goes beyond the meals I learned from my family. Got some chicken you want to roast? Add Baba’s to the marinade. Want to make ribs? Incorporate it into a coffee rub. Although the package says “meat curry powder” and sports images of goats and chickens, it’s great for more than just meat dishes (and it’s vegan). Coat potatoes, cauliflower, carrots, or butternut squash with a mix of Baba’s and melted ghee before roasting. You’ll get a nutty, savory, and slightly sweet taste that’s super satisfying. Because of its subtle sweetness from the fennel and star anise, I love using it as a popcorn seasoning on movie night.
Experimenting with making Baba’s my own makes me feel more connected to Didu and my family in Malaysia. I used to ration every spoonful, careful to make sure my supply lasted until the next auntie resupply. Now that I’ve discovered that it’s just a click away on Amazon, I’m using it with reckless abandon and finding even more ways to use it in my daily cooking.