What is garam masala?
You are pushing your cart down the aisle at your local supermarket. You are on a special quest! You need this specific spice for a new recipe you are dying to try. You finally reach the spice section and start searching. There it is: “garam masala”.
Well, like curry, garam masala is not a spice in and of itself, but a combination of spices popular in Indian cuisine. The name garam means intensity and masala basically means mixture. In this case “intensity” is not indicative of heat but rather of the richness and complexity flavor that is achieved through the combination of the different spices. Believe me once you take a whiff of your very own garam masala recipe, you will agree with the meaning of the word garam.
A little history
My research indicates that as with curries, there is no set garam masala recipe since there are many regional differences as well as individual tastes that come into play. The most common spices are: coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The proportions used are also at the discretion of the cook.
Can you substitute garam masala?
Kind of. If you don’t have every ingredient on hand, your creation will come out slightly different. For a spicier taste, you can add crushed chili or red pepper flakes. Some cooks even like to add saffron to impart a delicate floral characteristic. To create your own masala, the spices are up to you, innovate, improvise! Want to add an interesting touch? Star anise is your friend, trust me.
How to make it
To make garam masala, the spices are first lightly toasted on a skillet with a little bit of canola oil. As the spices heat up they begin to release their natural oils and unique flavors. Once toasted you can grind them together in a spice grinder. I use an old electric coffee grinder dedicated to spice grinding only. Note: it is important to toast the spices in low to medium heat to avoid burning.
When cooking with garam masala always add it towards the end so the rich and intense flavors infuse the food at the very last minute. You certainly don’t want to cook off this delicious flavor. Some popular dishes that use garam masala are: khicheri – a creamy lentil and rice dish and Rogan Josh, a lamb stew of Persian origin, but popular in the Kashmir region of Northern India.
According to my dear Pakistani friend Huma, in Pakistan it is common to flavor rice pilaf with garam masala. I just made a dish the other night that called for garam masala: kofta kari (curried meatballs). It was delicious. As a matter of fact, a co-worker who saw the post came into my office the next morning and asked me to make this for the next office pot luck so he could have some. He is not shy; I laughed and told him “I just might, just for you!
Here is an easy recipe for making your own fresh garam masala at home. The flavors will be very intense. This is the main spice mixture in many dishes of India. I will explain exactly what it is and now to make your own.
- Heat oil in pan on medium. Add all the spices and cook stirring for about 3-4 minutes.
- Remove from pan and place in spice grinder. Grind to a fine powder.
- Store in a jar in a cool dry place, e.g. your pantry.