Anyone remotely familiar with Indian food has probably heard of Garam Masala. Garam Masala is the most popular spice blend in India and is synonymous with Indian Moghlai cooking. Several brands of this fiery spice blend can be found at your local Indian store. One can even find a bottle of it at your Mega grocery store in the spice isle (even McCormicks makes their own blend). But what exactly is this mysterious spice blend and how does one use it? Let’s take a little journey to better understand Garam Masala.
Garam in Hindi means hot and Masala is of course, a spice blend. Garam Masala traces its roots back to Persia where ‘Garm’ is the Persian word for hot and ‘Masaleh’ is the word for ingredients. Garam Masala made it over to India with invasion of the Islamic Kings. This spice blend adds tremendous flavor and heat to a dish. The heat generated from this masala is unlike the burn you get from chilies. It feels more like warmth being introduced to your body – perfect for now as it starts getting colder.
Garam Masala is used whole as well as in its powdered form. When used whole (khada) the spices are added at the start of the dish preparation. It is crackled in hot oil thereby adding its flavor to it. The food cooked in this medium thus better absorbs the flavors as it simmers. The best example of this is Rice Pilaf, made fragrant and aromatic with the addition of the whole spices. When used as a powder, it is usually sprinkled over the dish right at the end of the preparation just before taking off the flame for service. Garam Masala powder serves the purpose of adding flavor and aroma.
As the flavors are so volatile, the store-bought Garam Masala blends over a short period of time lose their flavor and aroma. A true food aficionado makes his or her own Garam Masala blend and grinds it fresh to ensure maximum flavor. By toasting the spices mildly before grinding, one can guarantee better flavor and aroma. It is well worth the extra effort.
The components of the ‘Classic’ Garam Masala are cinnamon, cardamom (both green and black), cloves, bay leaves and black peppercorns. In terms of proportions, every cook in India has his or her own recipe. Chefs also bolster their Garam Masala blends with the addition of other basic spices such as cumin, coriander seeds, Nutmeg and Mace. Through trial and error, you will arrive at your own Garam Masala blend that works best for you.
The following recipe has a high proportion of peppercorns and is bolstered with cumin. This blend is perfect when making red meat curries.
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 large stick cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon cloves
3 - 4 medium dried bay leaves
Toast the ingredients slightly in a skillet till the spices turn a light brown.
Allow to cool and grind to a fine powder in a spice grinder. It is best to grind your spices whenever you need to use it to get the best flavor. Store left over spices in an air tight jar in a cool dark place.