Over the past decade, Shan, a packaged masala brand from Pakistan, has slowly invaded Indian kitchens. Fans of Shan follow developments in India-Pakistan relations with a hawk eye because often, escalating tensions at the border seem to result in the supply of Pakistani products in India becoming sparse and unpredictable. Last year, a few days after the attack on Indian forces in Pulwama, my husband turned to me and said, “How are we doing on Shan?”, a quiver of anxiety in his voice. I had stocked up on the biryani and korma masalas, I assured him, but we were running low on the haleem.
More than a year later, the Shan Haleem masala remains elusive (maybe it’s the covid-19 effect this time) and my annual haleem-making adventure during Ramzan had to be put on hold. Friends in Mumbai and Delhi, however, say Shan is “more or less available” in their cities. This felt patently unfair and I recently discovered why Bengaluru had these periodic shortages. According to an interview with Shan Foods’ founder Sikander Sultan by the Economic Times in 2014, while the company has made inroads into the north-Indian market and was even leading in certain sub-categories within the packaged masala blend segment, they hadn’t expanded to “some geographies like the south.”
The company, it seems, is not actively distributing the product in southern Indian cities, and it’s only thanks to some enterprising retailers that a few of the masala varieties are available at all in Bengaluru, and this naturally suffers when the overall supply falls because of border tensions.
If Mr Sultan ever reads this, he should know that he is losing out on a lucrative and highly motivated market. “I have asked my sister to courier them to me from Delhi,” says Bengaluru-based food consultant and writer Monika Manchanda. “I’ve been looking for them all over town but they seem to have disappeared from the shelves.” I recently reached out to a seller on Amazon that stocks Shan but sells them only in 8 packs of a single variety and asked if they would customize an 8-pack for me. They did, and just a couple of days ago a carton of Shan made its way home (two each of the Bombay Biryani, Korma, Chicken, and Nihari masalas, if you want to know).
But what’s so special about Shan masalas in the first place, ask the uninitiated, sounding skeptical—isn’t it like any other meat masala that you sprinkle on top of your curry for that extra flavor and restaurant-like taste? “Just because it’s Pakistani?” a full-of-nationalistic-fervor neighbor recently asked me when I was extolling Shan’s virtues on a WhatsApp group, possibly suspecting me of deliberately snubbing made-in-India atmanirbhar products.
Unfortunately, Shan loyalists are not influenced by such abstract ideals—we just love the way it makes cooking glorious, rich, complex kormas, and biryanis easy. Many of these dishes call for spices like a stone flower and shah jeera (one pinch each only) that will be used once and then slowly die in the corner of the cupboard. But Shan’s masalas are full-bodied mixtures of all these ingredients, along with practically everything else that goes into a particular dish, so that all one has to do is chop up and fry some onions, dunk the meat and masala together in the kadhai, and occasionally stir the mix while checking Twitter.
Recently, a new ad film from Shan that went viral on Twitter shows an elderly man using his dead wife’s recipe book to cook chicken korma for their daughter—a recipe that calls for Shan masala. The old gentleman is clearly not a regular cook—his actions in the kitchen are slow and hesitant—yet he ends up making the perfect rich, spicy chicken dish. I am here to tell the skeptics that it is that easy.
Manchanda is a discerning cook who revives old recipes and develops new ones that mostly feature made-from-scratch, home-ground masalas, but she’s unabashed about admitting that for her own home meals, Shan is often a go-to. “Their Kunna Masala is an absolute favorite. The kuna gosht (mutton curry) made using the Shan mix turns out to be phenomenal,” says Manchanda. ‘Kunna Gosht’ is a mutton dish from Chiniot in the Punjab region of Pakistan— ‘kunna’ refers to the clay pot in which it was traditionally cooked.
“No self-respecting South Asian cook uses masalas out of a box—except this one,” writes award-winning Pakistani-American food blogger Maryam Jillani. “I was speaking to culture writer Ahmer Naqvi about his family’s biryani recipe. He pauses to think and then says, ‘I think my mother and aunt use a blend of two Shan Masala biryani mixes.’ It’s at this moment the true power of Shan Masala unveils itself. When your brand becomes a part of a family recipe, it’s become immortal,” writes Jillani in an article for Heated, an online food magazine.
Sadaf Hussain, author of Daastan-e-Dastarkhan: Stories and Recipes from Muslim Kitchens and a former MasterChef India finalist, calls himself a “Shan loyalist” and says he has been using the masalas for the past 15-20 years. He has even encouraged its use in restaurants he has consulted with. Like all Shan fans, he has his favorites—the Bombay Biryani masala is his go-to. “It’s the attention to detail that sets it apart from other pre-packaged masalas. The Bombay Biryani masala has dried apricots in it, and when you add it to the meat while it cooks, the apricots slowly get rehydrated, adding a burst of flavour to every second mouthful in the finished dish. I haven’t found that kind of depth in any other packaged masala blend,” says Hussain.