SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
Every kitchen has some rules. Mine doesn't have too many but I admit to being a stickler for a few that I do have. A good example of one is that I never cook frozen seafood. Another is that I always, without exception, use homemade garam masala. The ban on ambiguously-colored powder from a packet that smells of no particular spice and passes for garam masala, is non-negotiable as far I am concerned. There are many store-bought ingredients that are as good as homemade ones, pie crusts for example; but garam masala isn't one of them.
You might say I'm fanatical, and maybe I am. But it is easy to see why. Once spices are ground up and packaged, they quickly lose their all too precious aroma. And sometimes, (on a more sinister note), since spices are on the pricey side, companies use low quality spices to cut costs (and some don't even put in all the required spices). Once powdered into masala form, who's to tell what went in. The result is a spice mix that smells vague. It isn't garam masala that doesn't grab you by the nose.
Making a memorable garam masala isn't laborious at all, so I wonder why more people don't make their own mix? The term garam masala literally translates to ' hot spice mix'. The heat in this case refers to the spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg etc, that have a mild warming effect on the palate and throat. I'm sure the strong, bold smells of these spices, which have a certain thermal quality also contributed to the nomenclature. North Indian cuisine is almost incomplete without garam masala. Half a teaspoon of a decent garam masala is all you need to sex up your dal or chicken curry. A simple marinade of garlic, garam masala, cream and salt for chicken legs or thighs before they go on the grill, can surprise you with its richly layered flavours. It is the soul of a good pulao/pilaf or biryani and every Indian cook has his/her special garam masala mix that makes their biryani unique.
A standard garam masala has anywhere between 6-14 spices. Some like cinnamon, cloves and cardamom appear in all versions while others such as dry ginger, mace and even rose petals can be found in fancier concoctions. My garam masala has 9-10 spices (some of which are optional). It's good to start by making a small quantity (you may half the recipe) and add or subtract quantities and spices to your taste as you start using it more and more. Once you've made your own garam masala, it will become a precious part of your pantry and your cooking. That I guarantee.
20 gm cumin seed
10 gm black cardamom (skin removed)
20 gm black peppercorns
20 gm green cardamom (skin on)
10 gm coriander seed (optional)
20 gm fennel seed
10 gm clove
20 1 inch cinnamon sticks
4-5 dried bay leaves
10 gm black cumin seed (optional)
10 gm mace
2 nutmegs broken into smaller pieces
Supriya is a blogger and freelance writer who has cooked and eaten her way across many cities in India and a few abroad. Her food interests cover everything from cheesecakes to chicken curry. A lover of long stories, the monsoon and old trees, she's inspired by nature and all its magic.