If you really want to take your curries to the next level, then you really need to start making your own spice blends at home.
Here are three reasons why:
- Customized: homemade spice blends can be suited to your exact tastes
- Inexpensive: buying spices in bulk and making your own spice blends is cheaper than buying store-bought blends. Any leftover whole spices can be used in other recipes.
- Fresh: the oils in spices break down under heat, light, and time. Small homemade batches will have much better flavour than store-bought blends.
So get thee to thy local grocer—if you’re near one that caters to south Asians, then you’ll be able to find some really incredible ingredients on the cheap—and start mixing!
Here’s my guide to how:
- About Garam Masala
- Buying and Storing Garam Masala
- Preparing Garam Masala
About Garam Masala
Garam masala means ‘hot mixture,’ and it’s used extensively as a flavouring in Indian and south Asian cuisine. The ‘hot’ refers not to the spiciness or capsaicin content, but to the fact that the blend can withstand high temperatures.
It’s like herbs de Provence or five-spice powder—it’s an essential ingredient in regional cuisine, and it adds a subtlety and finishing touch to those regional dishes in which it’s used.
The proportions of the ingredients—and even the ingredients themselves—vary from region to region, and even home to home. Feel free to play around with substitutes and amounts to suit your own taste.
The basic concept behind garam masala is that you dry heat the ingredients, then blend them.
In Indian cuisine, the order in which and time at which certain ingredients are added can be very precise. Some dishes call for whole garam masala—which is just the ingredients themselves—and some dishes call for ground garam masala. Whole garam masala is usually prepared separately and added at the beginning or middle of a recipe, whereas ground garam masala can be added at different stages in the cooking process depending on the dish, but is usually added just at the end like fresh herbs.
I’ll stir a little powdered garam masala in at the end of my creamy curries to round out the dish; I’ll heat whole garam masala in oil at the beginning of tomato-based curry dishes.
Ryan doesn’t like whole spices in his curries, but I’ve yet to be compelled to remove them when making a dish. It does result in a mouthful of cardamom pods from time to time, which isn’t exactly pleasant.
If you figure out how to remove the whole spices during the cooking process while preserving the flavour of the dish, then let me know!
Buying and Storing Garam Masala
Some of the ingredients in Indian dishes can seem daunting. Once you become familiar with the cuisine, however, you’ll build up a pantry of south Asian spices and pronounce asafoetida with ease.
It’s really worth it to seek out a grocer that caters to south Asian clientele. You’ll see a whole bunch of spices—both fresh and dried—and you’ll get the cheapest rice that you’ve ever found.
The spice mixture itself will keep for a few months in a cool, dry, dark place. It’s really best to make it in small batches so that it’s always as fresh as possible. If you need to, then you can even whiz up a bit while cooking the recipe itself!
Preparing Garam Masala
I’ve listed below ingredients that I have on hand, in amounts that suit my taste. The reason that the measurements aren’t exact is so that you can play around as well.
Cooking is like painting, or writing—or any kind of creative activity, for that matter. You need to envision the perfect mix of flavours, textures, and colours before starting to make the dish. As you go, you adjust, and you paint a picture or tell a story with your dish.
Play around with proportions as you like, or keep the proportions and reduce the amounts to make a smaller batch.
Few tablespoons coriander seeds
Few tablespoons cumin seeds
Big pinch black peppercorns
Big pinch whole cloves
Big pinch green cardamom pods
Pinch cinnamon bark (or a 1-2″ cassia stick)
1 or 2 bay leaves
1 or 2 dried red chillies
Just a hint of freshly grated nutmeg
Just an idea: you could even keep part of this whole mixture for use in recipes that call for it. This way, you won’t have to search through half your spices to pull out the ones that you’ll need—you’ll have them right there!
Heat a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high to high heat.
Add all ingredients, stirring often until the cumin browns—a few minutes. Turn off the heat and remove the spices to a plate to cool.
When cool, open up the green cardamom pods and remove the seeds. Add the seeds back into the spice mixture and discard the husks.
Grate some nutmeg into the mix and blend in a spice-designated coffee grinder until a fine powder.
Make sure to let the heated spices cool pretty well before blending them in a spice grinder. I may or may not have ground mine straight from the pan once, instantly melting some of the masala into the top of my spice grinder cover, and producing some really interesting white smoke.
Store in an airtight container and delight fellow diners with any vegan Indian recipe in which it’s incorporated.