Contrary to popular belief Garam Masala is not simply a standard mix of spices or indeed a standalone spice. Rather the composition of Garam Masala varies not only regionally but also can differ from household to household. Some Indian households can even have garam masala recipes which have been handed down from generation to generation and are closely guarded secrets
The actual translation of Garam Masala means “hot” & “mixture of spices”. However the hot does not refer to the intensity of the spices, rather it refers to the fact that the spices raise the heat of your body by increasing your metabolism. Whilst there are huge variations, the typical garam masala will contain black & white peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, black & white cumin seeds and black, brown and green cardamom pods.
These may then be blended with herbs or ground with water, vinegar, coconut milk or other liquids to make a paste. Other additions may include nuts, onions, garlic or star anise. In Northern Indian cuisine, garam masala is typically used in powder form, while in Southern India garam masala can be formed into a paste. This is probably due to climate though as it is much colder in the North of India as opposed to the South
The possibilities are endless but in all cases the flavours must be carefully blended to achieve a balanced effect. Each component adds its own element, cinnamon adds sweetness, pepper adds heat, nutmeg adds complexity, and coriander makes it a touch lemony and adds texture. That is why getting the blend correct is so important
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.
The garam masala you buy in the supermarkets tends to lose its aroma quickly. Like most things it is best made fresh just before cooking. If that isn’t feasible though, you can make up your own blend and then store it in an air tight container to use when needed.
Here at Rasam, we are happy to make up a fresh garam masala for you to bring home. Just ask us on your next visit