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Garam Masala: The Art of Spice

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

Indian cuisine is a vast myriad of spices often combined into a unique mix. The most common of these is termed garam masala. The term means "warm" and "spice blend" and is derived from ancient Ayurvedic medicine as a mix of spices that increase your metabolic rate and hence body temperature. This in turn stimulates digestion and the person's appetite. The core essentials of garam masala are cardamom, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks and cloves, but there are countless variations across every region of India. There are simpler blends that have 5 ingredients to very complex flavour profiles that have over 30 ingredients.

The origins of garam masala are thought to have come from Mughal cuisine around the 13th century AD. As a result, Northern Indian cuisine has more of a predominance of the use of variations of this ingredient. The use of garam masala is generally at the end of the cooking cycle of a dish. The garam masala is lightly sprinkled on top as a garnish or mixed in. The concept is that the flavours of the masala are fresh and the residual heat of the dish allows the fragrance and flavours to shine. One of the chef's tricks is to add a sprinkling of garam masala right before serving, this is different than adding it to the end of the cooking process. The freshness disappears within a few minutes and the garam masala loses its flavour and aroma. In addition, it is suggested that the garam masala blend also be made every week so that the freshness of the aromatics is dominant. Garam masala can also be used in both powdered and whole forms. The powdered form is added towards the end while the whole form is used at the start of the recipe, usually being tempered in oil, to extract maximum flavour.

Here is a version of the recipe from a home kitchen in Kerala. It is from Kerala, so the blend is different from the North Indian blends. My friend Nisha shared her mother-in-law's traditional recipe with me. I am always elated when folks share recipes and stories about their family cuisine, old recipes, stories of grandmas who loved to feed their families and of traditions and culture that is slowly being lost in a modern world.

It is heady from the sweet spices and adds the mi=uch needed balance and elegance to Kerala cuisine which is rich and spicy. The spices bring out the flavour of the meat in dishes like fried mutton or beef roasts, fries and curries. It can also be used on vegetable stir-fries and curries.


Kerala garam masala:

2 star anise

1 1/2 teaspoons anise seeds

10-12 green cardamom pods

1 teaspoon cloves

2 1-inch pieces of cinnamon sticks

1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns

Dry roast all the spices individually on a pan till aromatic and lightly coloured. Cool completely. Grind to a fine powder in a spice mill.

Store in an air-tight glass container.

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