Garam Masala: A Taste Worth Acquiring

The spices of garam masala can include (clockwise from top left): cumin, star anise, cardamom seeds, black cardamom, black peppercorns, fennel seeds, bay leaf, coriander seeds, cinnamon stick, cloves and nutmeg. i i
Courtesy of Chef K.N. Vinod
The spices of garam masala can include (clockwise from top left): cumin, star anise, cardamom seeds, black cardamom, black peppercorns, fennel seeds, bay leaf, coriander seeds, cinnamon stick, cloves and nutmeg.
Courtesy of Chef K.N. Vinod

When I was a child, people would often recommend classic books that they thought I ought to read. I would try, but sometimes a book would be hard to understand, and I would put it aside and then come back to it a few years later. I had a similar experience with garam masala, the quintessential Indian spice mix. Its name translates literally as "warm spice mix."

I distinctly remember that as a child, after my mother dusted it over finished meat and vegetable curries, I would gently scrape the sprinkled spices off the food with a spoon and discard them into the nearest trash can. I could not understand why people liked such a strong-tasting spice mix.

The combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, mace, peppercorns, coriander and cumin was just overpowering for me. (While the word garam does mean "heat," it does not mean the spices are hot. It means that the spices raise the heat of the body by raising the metabolism.)

As I got older, however, I did what I have done with other classics that I did not understand as a child: I took another look. And I finally understood the magic behind garam masala. It makes such a difference in a dish: cinnamon adds sweetness, pepper adds heat, nutmeg adds complexity, coriander makes it a touch lemony and adds texture. The spices all play so well together!

About The Author

An engineer turned food writer, Monica Bhide writes about food and its effect on our lives. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Food & Wine, Prevention, Cooking Light, Health and Self. Her latest book is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster). Read more at her website.

When used whole, garam masala spices are called khada masala and are added to hot oil before the other ingredients. Once added, they begin to sizzle (the cumin) and unfurl (the cinnamon stick) and release their essence into the oil. For the ground version, the spices are gently roasted on a griddle until they release their aroma, then ground together into a powder and used primarily as a finishing spice. That is, it is added with a gentle hand, generally toward the end of the cooking process, often as the final garnish of a dish.

Recently, chefs have started adding garam masala to marinades, salad dressings and other dishes. I always add it to my vegetable sautes, and a touch works wonders in soups and stews. I have even used it to season the flour when baking bread. A quick survey of friends (online and off) reveals other lovely uses: sprinkle over cut winter squash before baking , use as a dry rub for meats before grilling, and even add to desserts such as pies and cookies.

When I learned to cook as a child, I always used to call it "the masala of don'ts." My mother would say, "don't add too much to the curry" or "don't put too much cardamom in the mix" or "don't add the ground masala to hot oil."

But here is the vrai probleme: There is no single recipe for this spice mix. Every region in India, every area, every house, every cook within every house has a favorite version. Though I never hesitate to buy other premixed spices, garam masala is one that I always make at home. It has to have the right balance of flavors that appeals to my palate. Some cooks like to add red pepper to it, others add nutmeg, some add saffron.

So, I leave you with one last don't: Don't forget to enjoy yourself when you make and taste this magical mix.

Garam Masala

This version is by Julie Sahni, in her book Indian Regional Classics: Fast, Fresh, and Healthy Home Cooking (Ten Speed Press 2001). This classic version is the best I have ever tried – it has the right balance of flavors.

A bowl containing components of garam masala spice, and a bowl of the ground spices i i
Monica Bhide for NPR
A bowl containing components of garam masala spice, and a bowl of the ground spices
Monica Bhide for NPR

Makes 1/2 cup

2 tablespoons cumin seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 tablespoons cardamom seeds

2 tablespoons black peppercorns

3-inch stick cinnamon, broken up

1 teaspoon whole cloves

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground saffron (optional)

Put the cumin, coriander, cardamom, peppercorns, cinnamon and cloves in a dry heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Toast the spices, stirring occasionally, until they turn several shades darker and give off a sweet, smoky aroma, about 10 minutes. Do not raise the heat to quicken the process, or the spices will brown prematurely, leaving the insides undercooked. Cool completely.

Working in batches if necessary, transfer the mixture to a spice mill or coffee grinder and grind to a powder. Stir in the nutmeg and saffron. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to six months.

Garam Masala Oatmeal-Raisin Cookies

This recipe is adapted from one by Terry Boyd at www.blue-kitchen.com, and is based on one taught by The Chopping Block cooking school in Chicago. I loved the surprising spicy flavors in the cookie. Think of this as a cinnamon-flavored cookie on steroids!

Garam Masala Oatmeal-Raisin Cookies i i
Courtesy of Terry Boyd
Garam Masala Oatmeal-Raisin Cookies
Courtesy of Terry Boyd

Makes 2 dozen cookies

1 1/2 cups regular or quick-cooking oats

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala (store-bought or homemade)

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup golden raisins

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two cookie sheets.

Combine the oats, flour, garam masala, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Beat the butter and sugars in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed until thoroughly mixed and creamy. (If you're impatient like me and don't let the butter get warm enough before starting, use a fork to mash it together with the sugars, then finish up with the mixer.)

Add the eggs one at a time, and beat until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture until just combined. I usually add it about a third at a time to avoid overwhelming the egg mixture. Stir in raisins.

Using a tablespoon measuring spoon, scoop rounded balls of dough onto the cookie sheets. Flatten slightly. Bake until golden, 12 to 14 minutes (depending on your oven). Cool on wire racks.

Monica's Super Simple Chicken Curry

Adapted from The Everything Indian Cookbook by Monica Bhide (Adams Media 2004). This dish always tastes better the next day, after the flavors have a chance to really meld. Serve over hot rice or with naans. You will note the use of the whole spices (most of them are ingredients in the garam masala mix) to flavor the oil. This is a very classic Indian way of spicing a dish by layers.

Monica's Super Simple Chicken Curry i i
Sala Kannan for NPR
Monica's Super Simple Chicken Curry
Sala Kannan for NPR

Makes 4 to 5 servings

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 black cardamom pod

2 green cardamoms pods, bruised

2 whole cloves

1-inch cinnamon stick

1 bay leaf

1 large red onion, finely chopped

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon pure red chili powder

1 teaspoon garam masala (store-bought or homemade), plus more to sprinkle

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 tablespoon ground coriander

Table salt

2 pounds skinless chicken pieces, white or dark meat

2 tablespoons minced cilantro

Sliced mild onion, for garnish (optional)

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and bay leaf. When the spices begin to sizzle, add the onion, ginger and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is well browned, 5 to 7 minutes

Stir in the tomatoes. Cook until the tomatoes are almost dry and the oil begins to separate from the sides of the mixture, about 8 minutes.

Add the chili powder, garam masala, turmeric, coriander and salt to taste. Cook for another minute.

Add the chicken and cook until brown on all sides, 5 to 7 minutes, stirring constantly. Add 1 cup water, cover and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally and add more water if the sauce is drying up or if you want a thinner gravy. Add the cilantro and cook for another minute.

Serve hot, sprinkled with garam masala. Garnish with sliced onions, if desired.

Garam Masala Spiced Nuts

This recipe is adapted from one by Tara Mataraza Desmond, co-author of Almost Meatless (Ten Speed Press 2009). Tara says she loves garam masala because it is warm, deep, savory and unexpected, and a dusting of it can change the taste profile of a dish completely. She uses it here in an unexpected way to make spiced nuts. These are an addictive snack and perfect for potlucks, a hostess gift, or as part of an appetizer platter at a cocktail party.

Garam Masala Spiced Nuts i i
Courtesy of Tara Mataraza Desmond
Garam Masala Spiced Nuts
Courtesy of Tara Mataraza Desmond

Makes 3 cups nuts

1 medium egg white

3 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala (store-bought or homemade)

1 cup roasted, salted cashews

1 cup roasted, salted peanuts

1 cup toasted pecan halves

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Whisk together the egg white and 1 teaspoon water until a sturdy froth forms. Stir in the sugar, garam masala and nuts. Mix everything together to coat the nuts well.

Spread the nuts on the baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and bake until crispy and golden, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.

Remove from the oven, let cool completely, and break apart into pieces to serve.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.