What is Garam Masala?
Garam masala is a wonderfully aromatic blend of spices from India. Garam means “hot” or “heating” and masala means “spice blend”. The “hot” is not necessarily referring to the kind of heat we find in hot chillies but to the fact that the spices are first toasted then ground. Another explanation we’ve heard is that the amalgamated effect of the spices in garam masala increases body temperature, a pleasant warm glow you might feel after eating a dish flavoured with it. It does however usually include some black pepper and cinnamon or cassia which carry some heat.
Many of the spices used in garam masala are more familiar in the West as spices for desserts or baking: cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace for example. The addition of other spices may include black and/or green cardamom, bay leaves, cumin, coriander, fennel, and possibly caraway.
Different regions use different combinations and the blends will also vary from household to household where proportions may vary according to whatever dish it is being used to season. Whole garam masala is used more in north Indian cooking, especially meat dishes. A whole garam masala could include cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, cloves, cardamom pods, mace blades, and black peppercorns. These are fried in hot oil or ghee before other ingredients such as meat, onions, garlic, or ginger are added. Heating these spices releases a wonderful aroma that fills your house and stimulates appetites.
Ground garam masala is usually added at the end of cooking or may even be added to a dish after serving. We’ve heard it referred to as a “pepping up” spice. Only buy small quantities at a time, or if you choose to make your own, do it in small batches as it loses flavour after a few months and the flavour balance changes, with cloves becoming more predominant than is desirable. Use garam masala as directed in recipes but don’t stop there. It is excellent for flavouring many dishes, not just Indian fare. Sprinkle some over a squash before roasting or a bowl of pumpkin soup before serving, or onto corn on the cob that has been brushed with oil or butter.