Seasonings: Monica Bhide shares how to use the quintessential Indian spice mix garam masala. Recipe: Garam Masala

Share story

When I was a child, people would often recommend classic books that they thought I ought to read. I would try, but sometimes a book would be hard to understand and I would put it aside and then come back to it years later.

I had a similar experience with garam masala, a quintessential Indian spice mix. Its name translates literally to “warm spice mix.” I distinctly remember that, as a child, after my mother dusted it over finished meat and vegetable curries, I would gently scrape the sprinkled spices off the food with a spoon and discard them.

I could not understand why people liked such a strong-tasting spice mix. The combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, mace, peppercorns, coriander and cumin was just overpowering for me.

But as I got older, I did what I have done with other classics that I did not understand as a child: I revisited the spice mix. And I finally understood the magic behind it. It makes such a difference in a dish!

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. To be used ground, 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 — often as the final garnish of a dish.

Chefs add it to marinades, salad dressings and more. I add it to vegetable sautes, and a touch works wonders in soups and stews. I have even used it to season the flour when baking bread. A quick survey of friends reveals other lovely uses: sprinkled over cut winter squash before baking it; as a dry rub for meats before grilling; and even added to desserts such as pies and cookies.

When I learned to cook as a child, I always used to call it “the masala of don’ts.” My mother would say, “Don’t add too much to the curry” or “Don’t put too much cardamom in the mix” or “Don’t add the ground masala to hot oil.” So many things not to do with it!

There is no single recipe for this spice mix. Most everyone has his or her favorite version. Even though I never hesitate to buy other premixed spices, garam masala is one that I always make at home. It has to have the right balance of flavors that appeals to my palate. Some cooks like to add red pepper, others add nutmeg, some add saffron. I guess there is no purist recipe here.

Here is one more “don’t.” Don’t forget to enjoy yourself when you make and taste this magical mix.

GARAM MASALA

Makes ½ cup

2 tablespoons cumin seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 tablespoons cardamom seeds

2 tablespoons black peppercorns

3-inch stick cinnamon, broken up

1 teaspoon whole cloves

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon ground saffron (optional)

Put the cumin, coriander, cardamom, peppercorns, cinnamon and cloves in a dry heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Toast the spices, stirring occasionally, until they turn several shades darker and give off a sweet, smoky aroma, about 10 minutes. Do not raise the heat to quicken the process, or the spices will brown prematurely, leaving the insides undercooked. Cool completely.

Working in batches if necessary, transfer the mixture to a spice mill or coffee grinder and grind to a powder. Stir in the nutmeg and, if using, saffron. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

— “Indian Regional Classics: Fast, Fresh, and Healthy Home Cooking”by Julie Sahni (Ten Speed Press, 2001)

Monica Bhide at monica@monicabhide.com