The literal translation of garam masala is “hot spices”, in Indian, and “warm spice mixture” in Hindi. The actual spices used in this flavorful blend can vary depending on the region and brand. Traditionally, the most common spices contained therein are cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom. Other worthy additions to the mixture include garlic, mustard seed, coriander, cumin, ginger, and many more. Garam Masala has also been referred to as Curry Powder, though you will find many wildly different variations of curry powder as well.
Garam masala can be purchased at most supermarkets, but for a bolder, fresher flavor, it is best to prepare it yourself from fresh herbs and spices, using a mortar and pestle to grind and mix the ingredients. The powerful flavors of a fresh batch can add an intensely pungent kick to any dish, but the mixture does not keep well over time, gradually losing its enticing aroma and degrading in flavor, so you will want to prepare this in small batches.
The spice blend is most often used in Indian cuisine and other asian fare. An integral ingredient for pilafs and biryanis (Indian rice dishes), it is also a nice addition to onion-based marinades and sauces for meat and poultry, adding subtle levels of flavor that will tease and tantalize your mouth. For a quick, creative flair, instead of serving another platter of bland vegetables, toss them with a pinch or two of garam masala and taste the delicious liveliness that the various spices can add to any dish.
Often used in Indian curries, you should take care to add garam masala near the end of any cooking, so that the full flavors are retained. In addition to the flavorful benefits of the spice blend, you gain a shopping list of medicinal and health benefits as well, as most, if not all, of the spices contained within the mixture possess their own healthy properties.
A proper, store-bought blend should contain no additives or preservatives, salt, or MSG. If you prefer to make your own, try to use whole spices, and grind them together until they form a fine powdery blend. You can easily experiment with a multitude of different spices for a variety of unique flavors. Store in a cool, airtight, opaque container for maximum shelf-life, about 6-8 months. Professional chefs specializing in Indian cuisine will prepare a new batch every day.
To get you started, here is a recipe for a basic blend of spices for a traditional garam masala. You can double and triple the amounts to make a larger batch if needed. You will need 5 cinnamon sticks, 1 teaspoon each of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and black peppercorns, 1 bay leaf, and four cloves. Roast each of them separately until they turn aromatic (they may begin to smoke), then grind them to a fine powder using either a mortar and pestle, or a coffee or spice grinder. Store the blend in an airtight, opaque container.
For additional subtleties and a uniquely flavorful experience, add a teaspoon each garlic powder, paprika, ginger, and chili powder to the above mixture. To get really creative, you can also include such spices as mango powder or mint, or chili powder for a hot kick to your taste buds.
Use garam masala as a wonderful spice rub for meats or seafood, or as an addition to your favorite barbecue sauce. You’ll find that the spice blend has opened up new avenues of flavor to explore.