The word masala generally means seasonings of any sort, says luckyfatima. “It is an Arabic-origin word in South Asian languages meaning originally in Arabic ‘a thing which is good and right’ (maslahah),” she says. Dry masala means what it sounds like: spices, ground or whole. Wet masala, says luckyfatima, means a combo of spices plus wet ingredients such as tomatoes, onion, garlic, ginger, and/or chiles.
So masala is the generic term, and garam masala is a particular kind of spice mix. “Garam masala refers to a mix … in which the spices give heat to the body according to Ayurvedic principles,” says luckyfatima. “Garam means hot. The garam spices are like black pepper, cumin, cloves, bay leaves, nutmeg, mace, cardamom big and small, cinnamon, and so forth.” The exact construction of garam masala varies by region, country, and individual kitchen, but definitely every household in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal has a small jar of freshly ground garam masala blend which is used daily in home cooking, says luckyfatima.
“Often garam masala is added at the end of cooking, to add a bright, fresh layer of flavor,” says paulj. “This is true even if the recipe uses similar spices like cumin at the start of cooking.”
Board Links: Masala vs Garam Masala