There are so many myths about garam masala I don’t even know where to begin. And it’s hard to know exactly what is in it. When I started learning recipes from my family when I knee high, it was one of the first masalas they shared with me.
So what exactly is garam masala? Garam translates to mean ‘hot’ and masala means ‘mixture’ or ‘blend’. The spices that go into it are warming by nature, but they are often heated up to release the essential oils and aromas before they are ground.
It differs from person to person, region to region and main flavour in the dish. By this I mean depending on what you are cooking, meat v seafood v vegetables, you can have a different garam masala for each, and depending on where in India the dish has it roots, will also determine on what goes into your garam masala.
There is no one definitive spice blend for garam masala.
It can be a blend of 2 to 200 (well not quite!) different spices. Each cook will have their own secret recipes, often passed down through their families, and never shared with anyone. I love this idea! Having your very own secret spice mix, almost whispered to you, so it’s likely you will miss something out and have to replace it with something you love. It’s almost like putting your stamp on it. A lasting legacy that adapts with time.
I have the fondest memories of our original spice room at our first office. I was mesmerised when I walked in as a little girl. There were huge sacks of spices, sealed, ready to be ripped open and poured into our giant sized grinder. I would watch my parents making up the blends and wonder how they remember what goes in. I think those are the moments I will remember forever.
Now although I have said that anything and everything can be added to your garam masala there are a few rules to follow. Don’t add turmeric. It is bitter and will taint your spice mix. Add this separately to your dish when cooking. Don’t add too much chilli, if at all. You can add a few dried chillies but remember that not everyone likes too much heat so it’s best if you add it in separately depending on how hot you want it. A garam masala should be rich and fragrant made using the aromatic spices such as green cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, black cardamom. The other ingredients such as coriander seeds, cumin seeds and fennel seeds bulk out the flavour and dilute the super strong taste. There are a huge array of spices that you can add as well as or instead of these, but these are a good starting place if you fancy making up your own.
Next, you have to decide if you want to toast the them. Depending on what you want to use it for will help you make your decision. If you want to add it during cooking, then it doesn’t need to be toasted. You will be releasing their essential oils whilst it is heating. If you want to sprinkle it at the end, then you need to toast them. It’s really simple to do. Just put a heavy based frying pan on a medium heat and gently toast them. Don’t add any fat or liquid, toast them as they are, dry. You will soon smell the wonderful aroma filling your kitchen, and your seeds will begin to change colour. Try not to burn them and be really careful as they will burn easy. You can then pop them in a pestle & mortar or spice grinder and crush, coarsely for texture, or grind to a fine powder, really up to you.
If you don’t use it all up in cooking then make sure you pop it in an airtight container, ideally in a dark pantry. Spices are best ground just as need them to maintain their fresh flavours, so try and use it them up quickly after grinding.
Spices can do wonders for any dish, and when you have mastered the basics there are a million things you can do with them. My spice tin is my one of my most treasured possessions and it travels the world with me wherever I cook. My garam masalas, i’m proud to say, are not my own and all belong to my ancestors. A piece of my heritage all ground up in little jars.