Garam masala: Bringing a little heat into the kitchen and your dishes (2024)

Ever wondered why, despite faithfully following an Indian recipe shared by a generous cook, your dish doesn’t quite smell or taste like the original? You haven’t changed a thing, but something vital is missing – garam masala powder, a combination of multiple aromatic ingredients, the final sprinkling of magic dust!

Garam masala, which translates to “warm spice,” is a blend of spices that adds a little heat and oomph to your dish. It typically includes roasted and ground spices such as fennel, coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom. According to Margaret Shaida’s book The Legendary Cuisine of Persia, the term originates from Persian, where “garm” means hot and “masaleh” refers to ingredients.

Garam masala powder is essentially a blend of spices, usually roasted and ground. Often, a spoonful is added at the end of cooking, and stirred in, to enhance the flavour of dishes. It includes key aromatics––a combination of fennel/saunf, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom––lending a distinctive fragrance and flavor. This aromatic mixture isn’t just about flavor; ingredients like cardamom, cinnamon, and clove, according to ancient texts like the Ayurvedic Charaka Samhita, belong to a category of aromatic drugs known as Sarvagandha. These spices offer medicinal and healing properties beneficial to the body.

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Each region in India crafts its own garam masala blend based on local spices and culinary traditions. I’ve put together some very simple — and not so simple — but quintessential garam masala recipes here. You can prepare it in small quantities and keep it handy in your kitchen, and avoid the hideous packeted garam masalas.

With garam masala, for once, we have an ingredient mix predating the Mughals in India.

The Ni’matnama, compiled between 1495 and 1505 by Ghiyath Shah, the sultan of Malwa, and Nasir Shah, his son, mentions elaborate spice blends similar to garam masala, predating Babur’s arrival. This blend likely traveled from India to Persian kitchens, influencing the Persian spice blend advieh. Persian chefs employed by Mughal rulers in India during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries probably introduced garam masala to Iran.

One of the simplest yet flavourful garam masalas to prepare is the Bengali garam masala. Combine equal parts cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon and grind into a fine powder without roasting. Add a teaspoon to dishes like chicken curry, kosha mangsho, or alur dum just before finishing, and enjoy the enhanced flavors. Thank me later!

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Garam masala: Bringing a little heat into the kitchen and your dishes (2) With garam masala, for once, we have an ingredient mix predating the Mughals in India. (Photo: Freepik)

If you, like me, love Lucknowi or Awadhi cuisine but struggle to replicate its flavours in dishes like biryani or kebabs, missing out on Lazzat-e-Taam garam masala could be the reason. I came across this unique blend in Adil I Ahmed’s book on Awadhi cuisine, Tehzeeb, which includes exotic ingredients such as allspice, lemongrass, and rose petals known for their digestive properties. Inspired by hakims or practitioners of Unani medicine, this closely guarded recipe adds a rich depth to dishes. Once you have procured all the spices, roasted and ground them, simply add a spoon of it to your kebabs or biryanis and you’ll start thinking you’re dining in an Awadhi mansion.

The ingredient list for the Lucknowi Lazzat-e-Taam garam masala is as complex as the Bengali garam masala one is simple. You will need to lightly roast and then grind into a powder the following:

5 gms clove

7 gms green cardamoms

3 gms mace

2 gms cinnamon

1 nutmeg

5 gms black pepper

5 gms coriander seeds

5 gms allspice

5 gms of grated coconut

5 gms of jarakhush/ dried lemon grass

5 gms of cumin

5 gms of caraway seeds

5 gms of sandalwood powder/ since we are not Veerapan’s offspring I just use 2.5 gms Ceylon Cinnamon instead

3 gms rose petals

5 gms makhana

1 gm bay leaf

5 gms poppy seeds

5 gms fennel seeds

5 gms anise seeds

5 gms white pepper

3 dried fennel leaves

1 tbsp kewra water

1 tbsp mitha ittr – essential oil of rose

ALSO IN THE SERIES | Is vegetable biryani just dolled up pulao? Which came first?

It’s fascinating that many garam masala ingredients have origins outside India. Cinnamon arrived from Ceylon, while nutmeg, cloves, and mace came from the volcanic Maluku Islands in Eastern Indonesia, and large black cardamoms from the Eastern Himalayas.

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The other garam masala which I absolutely love is the Maharashtrian Goda garam masala. God means “sweet” in Marathi, but the sweetness being referred to here is of the fragrance of the masala. This is a robust garam masala which should be used judiciously. And is generously used in Maharashtrian dals and vegetables.

It features stone flower (patthar ke phool), which releases its flavor when heated, and Cobra’s Saffron (Nagkesar), known for its citrusy-woody notes and used in Ayurvedic medicine. Unique additions like coconut, sesame seeds, and niger seeds (karale or khurasni) lend it versatility, perfect for creating delightful dry chutneys.

To make Goda masala, roast all the ingredients given below, separately, in a frying pan or kadai with a teaspoon of oil, wait for them to cool and then grind to a powder.

8 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 tablespoons cumin seeds

2 teaspoons of caraway seeds/ shahi jeera

3 teaspoons of niger seeds (karale)

7 tablespoons sesame seeds

6 tablespoons desiccated coconut

4 to 5 broken dry red chilies

¼ teaspoon asafoetida

Once done, add 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil in the pan and add all the ingredients listed below and roast together:

4 to 5 pieces of 1 inch cinnamon sticks

7 to 8 small-sized tej patta

½ teaspoon black peppercorns

3 star anise

25 cloves

1 black cardamom

5 to 6 green cardamoms

1 teaspoon cobra’s saffron (nagkesar)

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3 tablespoons of stone flower (dagad phool or patthar ke phool)

Cool all the ingredients and then grind to a powder. This is lovely as a final masala on dals and vegetables and even curries.

There are many more garam masalas from across India––from the Kashmiri garam masala, which uses mace and nutmeg, to the Punjabi one. And it’s worth trying out all of them to understand the difference in flavours. But for now, we’ll end it at these three garam masalas, and leave something for later.

Next week, I’ll be writing about that favourite staple across India – paneer, and why at one point, it was considered inauspicious to make paneer in kitchens in India. And we’ll talk about the only region that uses paneer or chhena in its desserts.
Garam masala: Bringing a little heat into the kitchen and your dishes (2024)

FAQs

What is the use of garam masala in cooking? ›

Garam masala is an iconic Indian spice blend that is used in a wide variety of dishes including curries, stews, soups, dals, and marinades. We love this spice because it lends a warm, sometimes sweet earthiness to recipes like this Hyderabadi Lamb Biryani and Tandoori Pomfret.

Why do you add garam masala at the end of cooking? ›

Fresh and fragrant

Dev Biswal explains: 'Generally, it's better to add garam masala at the end of the cooking process, as it works on an aromatic level, raising the whole nature of the dish. ' So stir a little into your curry just before serving to release all those fresh, vibrant aromas.

What can I use if I don't have garam masala? ›

3 Common Substitutes for Garam Masala
  • Curry powder: Use curry powder as a substitute, swapping garam masala entirely in your recipe. ...
  • Allspice and Cumin: Combine 4 parts ground cumin with 1 part allspice, for an easy substitute when you're in a hurry.
  • Chaat Masala: Try using chaat masala as a substitute.

What is garam masala called in English? ›

Garam masala, an Indian spice blend, roughly translates to “warming spices.” This is because the mix of ingredients heats the body, boosting the metabolism.

Does garam masala add heat? ›

The name garam masala means hot or warm spices, but the flavors aren't hot as in spicy—garam masala is more of a warming mix, with flavors like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and peppercorns (and many others!).

Do you need to cook off garam masala? ›

For the best application of garam masala, it needs to be cooked (i.e., this is not the spice blend to sprinkle raw over cucumbers or dips). Begin by sautéing it with your aromatics at the start of cooking, add it midway to perfume the entire stew or braise, or do both.

What to do if you put too much garam masala? ›

Add yogurt or milk to minimize that spice from garam masala. you might need to add salt too as adding yogurt / milk will neutralize the already existing salt.

Can you overcook garam masala? ›

In the start, you might feel tempted to heat on high but keep your patient alive. Heating on high will only burn your spice, and you will be left with the burnt smelling masala. Add the garam masala in the end when it comes to putting your spice mix in your food preparation.

Is curry powder and garam masala the same thing? ›

While both are Indian spice mixes, their unique flavor profiles distinguish them. Curry Powder tends to be milder, with a symphony of spices creating a harmonious, less intense flavor compared to the robust complexity of Garam Masala.

What are the best ways to use garam masala? ›

My Favorite Uses for Garam Masala
  1. Bake with it. Swap garam masala for some or all of the spices in your favorite pumpkin pie recipe. ...
  2. Roast root vegetables with it. ...
  3. Combine it with yogurt for the best chicken marinade. ...
  4. Shake it on popcorn. ...
  5. Make masala eggs. ...
  6. Stir it into soups.
Nov 6, 2019

What's the difference between tikka masala and garam masala? ›

Tikka masala is pieces of meat or chicken marinated with spices, whereas garam masala is the term used for 'hot spices' that are not spicy but can keep the body warm. Garam masala powders may contain chilli and peppers, although they can be aromatic but are not spicy.

Can you add garam masala to any curry? ›

Garam masala is typically either added at the beginning of the cooking process like in this Paneer Jalfrezi or (more commonly) sprinkled in near the end for a stronger sensory hit. It works particularly well with spicy vegetable, fish or meat curries, as well as rice dishes like biryanis or pilafs.

Is garam masala healthy? ›

Garam masala is a good spice; it prevents growth of cancer-causing radicals and can prevent colon cancer too. Garam masala is rich in anti inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties. This helps in restoring the health of the heart and reduces cholesterol.

Why do Indians use garam masala? ›

Garam masala adds warmth, sweetness, floral notes, and a touch of heat from the black pepper. It is intended to be a fragrant spice as well as flavorful. While cumin, coriander, and turmeric may remind you of curry, garam masala is generally not firey hot.

Does garam masala expire? ›

Storing homemade garam masala properly is crucial for maintaining its freshness. The ground spice blend should be placed in an airtight container and kept in a cool, dark location. Properly stored, homemade garam masala can retain its flavor for up to three months.

Is garam masala hotter than curry powder? ›

The Blend Dynamics: Curry Powder vs Garam Masala is a tale of two spice blends. While both are Indian spice mixes, their unique flavor profiles distinguish them. Curry Powder tends to be milder, with a symphony of spices creating a harmonious, less intense flavor compared to the robust complexity of Garam Masala.

What does garam masala taste like? ›

What Does It Taste Like? Garam masala adds warmth, sweetness, floral notes, and a touch of heat from the black pepper. It is intended to be a fragrant spice as well as flavorful. While cumin, coriander, and turmeric may remind you of curry, garam masala is generally not firey hot.

What is the effect of garam masala? ›

These spices can reduce triglycerides, cholesterol, and blood pressure. Some studies suggest that garam masala may help with weight loss. This is because some of the spices in the blend, such as black pepper and cumin, may help boost metabolism and increase feelings of fullness.

Is garam masala used in curry? ›

Garam masala is a spice blend widely used in Indian cuisine often seen in curries, lentil dishes, and soups.

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