First up, let’s explain some definitions.
Garam comes from the Urdu word ‘garam’ which means ‘hot’ and/or ‘pungent’ which, to many people these days, equates to spiciness.
Masala derives from Urdu ‘masalah’ which also means ‘spice’. However, in common parlance these days masala is used to describe a mix. This is not to be confused with ‘Marsala’, a fortified wine similar to port, Madeira and sherry!
Remember the movie Mississippi Masala in which an Indian family is expelled from Uganda when Idi Amin takes power? The family moves to Mississippi, but when their Indian daughter falls in love with an African American, the respective families have to come to terms with the mixed-race romance.
We now find masala used loosely to describe a plethora of packaged commercial spice mixes in India, such as fish masala, chicken masala, chaat masala, tandoori masala, sambar masala, and Madras masala (curry). The list goes on and on!
At our Spicery on the NSW Central Coast, we actually call our blending area “The Masala Room”. This is where we carefully blend our special spice mixes daily.
Garam masala is a very specific traditional spice blend which, although you will find different versions, should taste nothing like a curry. This is because the spice flavours in garam masala compliment Indian recipes.
A traditional Garam Masala will contain:
- Fennel Seeds for its refreshing anise-like flavour notes.
- Sri Lankan Cinnamon for its sweetness.
- Caraway Seeds for its distinctive, yet not too strong pungency.
- Black Peppercorns which add a mild heat and piperine flavour.
- Cloves for its pungency.
- Cardamom for its bright notes and ubiquitous Indian flavour.
How to use garam masala
This balanced, almost sweet blend with its touch of black-pepper bite lacks the characteristic curry notes of cumin, coriander and turmeric. This makes it enormously versatile as a spicing agent across a wide cross-section of Indian dishes.
Although most often associated with curries, garam masala is delicious when used as a rub for barbecued fish, along with as much ground dried chilli as you like and salt to taste.
One of my favorite uses for garam masala is in Herbie’s Saturday Curry, when I sprinkle the mix over the top of the curry (without stirring it through) just before putting it in the oven to slow cook.
For more spice information, recipes and learn how to make your own spice mixes, buy The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian Hemphill with recipes by Kate Hemphill.