Garam masala (gah-RAHM mah-SAH-lah) is a popular spice blend widely used in Indian cooking. Garam is the Hindi word for “hot,” but it needn’t be scorching—in the Indian vernacular, garam denotes warmth, intended to arouse the palate, and lift the spirit.
Masala means mixture, and what a mixture it is. garam masala frequently includes black pepper, white pepper, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin seeds, black cumin, cardamom, dried chilies, fennel, mace, nutmeg, malibar leaves, long pepper (pippali), star anise, coriander seeds, turmeric, sesame, mustard, ground ginger and fennel. In many ways, garam masala is more a concept than a recipe. Indian home cooks use a great deal of personal discretion to create unique blends intended to give warmth and interest to various dishes.
Typically, Indian cooks toast whole spices to release flavor before adding them to dishes. Pre-ground spice mixtures, however, are generally added at the end of cooking to preserve their flavor.
If you make your own garam masala, do it in small batches—like any spice, it loses flavor quickly. Commercial garam masala blends are readily available. Aside from traditional Indian dishes, rub garam masala on a chicken before roasting. Sprinkle it on buttered carrots. Stir it into lentil stews. And rub it on salmon or whitefish. For an unusual DVD-night munch, add a teaspoon of garam masala, a generous teaspoon of brown sugar and a pinch of cayenne pepper to a batch of freshly popped corn.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.