Depending on your source, garam masala is a typically North Indian blend of spices, a blend hailing from the Punjab region of India (which is in the North), or a blend of spices varying from region to region of India. Other spice combinations going by the name ‘’garam masala’’ are also made, modified by the cultures that Indian food was exported to, such as in Japan, Guyana and Malaysia. A similar but somewhat milder and more fragrant blend of spices, also reminiscent of Ras El Hanout, is found in Persian (Iranian) cuisine as advieh which translates to ‘’medecine’’.
Classically, the blend should be a mix of hot spices which is what the name ‘’garam masala’’ literally translates to. Apparently, according to Ayurvedic texts & Unani Tibb practices, it should be a mixture of spices that heat the body; kindling agni (digestive fire) and activating the body’s metabolic functions. Although I tried to find whether these texts specified the blend or simply defined a hot spice, the literature is so vast that I haven’t been able to establish it yet. If somebody has the time or knowledge to add their 2c in the comments section, I’d appreciate it! Hint: the answer is probably in the Charak Samhita somewhere.
Garam masala usually contains between five and a dozen spices. Cheaper blends will have more inexpensive filler spices that are neutral in flavour. These fillers such as coriander and turmeric make for a milder more curry-powder-like combination and give results far less potent than a quality mix which should be intense, pungent and robust. The spices are either roasted or ground raw, recipes of both types exist.
Although most commonly used as a finishing spice at the end of the cooking period or dusted atop the finished dish, garam masala can be used as a part of the overall spicing of a recipe and cooked in from the start (usually right after the onion and garlic has been sautéed). Those blends that are not roasted first do require a bit of cooking, more so than many other finishing spices. If you want to be able to add it at the very end of the cooking period, simply roast a raw blend in a dry pan prior to use.
Below are a couple of recipes representative of North and South Indian garam masalas. Making your own at home will usually yield a far better product than most of the pre-ground store-bought varieties; albeit quite different in taste than what most are used to.
North Indian Garam Masala
- 1 tbsp cardamom seeds
- 1 tsp black peppercorn
- 1 tsp pippali long pepper
- 1 tsp black cumin (not nigella)
- 1 tsp whole cloves
- 1/3 of a nutmeg cut into coarse pieces
- 1 stick of cinnamon (approx. 3’’) broken into pieces
Grind all spices together and store in an air-tight jar away from light and high temperatures.
South Indian Garam Masala
- 1 tsp star anise
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp clove
- 1 tsp black cardamom
- 2 tsp fennel
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 2 tsp poppy seed
- 1 tsp cumin
Dry roast all the ingredients 3-4 minutes. Cool and grind to a fine powder. Store in a cool, dry and air-tight jar.
Finally, for those whose appetite has been whetted, an excellent comparative study of garam masala style spice blends throughout the Orient and lots of sample recipes to try can be found in the following article: http://www.silkroadgourmet.com/tag/advieh/. There’s also a really interesting and tasty Japanese garam masala blend (and curry powder!) here: http://justhungry.com/formula-making-japanese-curry-powder.
From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail, Madhur Jaffrey, Clarkson Potter. ISBN 0-609-60704-9
Essential Ayurveda, by Shubhra Krishan, New World Library. ISBN 978-1-57731-234-5
Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing, by Usha and Vasant Lad, The Ayurvedic Press. ISBN 978-1-883725-05-1
La cuisine et le goût des épices, by Ethné et Philippe deVienne, Trécarré. ISBN 978-2-89568-352-0