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How to boost flavours with home-made garam masala

Let us take a look at a minimalist and maximalist version of this ever popular spice blend

Garam masala roasted pumpkin; and (right) egg masala toast. (Photographs by Nandita Iyer)
Garam masala roasted pumpkin; and (right) egg masala toast. (Photographs by Nandita Iyer)

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If you have travelled by the local trains in Mumbai, you can predict the arrival of certain stations by the smells in the air. Before the Parle-G factory in Vile Parle was shut down, the sweet smell of Parle-G in the air was a dead giveaway that we were about to reach Vile Parle. In Vikhroli, the air used to be heavy with the smell of garam masala from the Everest factory. I used to work from an office there in the 2000s and just stepping out of it felt like I was being transported into the kadai of a masaledaar subzi.

For the longest time, garam masala did not enter my grandmother’s strictly Tamil kitchen. There was no need for this intensely flavoured spice mix in any of the dishes she prepared. Reluctantly, she started buying the smallest-sized pack (which stayed in the fridge forever), only to use in the potato mix to make aloo parathas, one of my lunch-box favourites. To my palate, only used to Tamil cooking, the complex flavour of garam masala was foreign and exciting, making the food taste rather exotic.

Later, when I started experimenting with cooking, I would add a pinch of this and that, just to see how the flavours would turn out. The flavour boost from garam masala made a simple dish taste like I had worked hard on it.

Cut to the present, and this is the only spice mix I always try and make at home. The difference in flavour between a store-bought garam masala and the one made at home is the exponentially higher flavour quotient. This is for two reasons. Commercial brands often use more coriander seeds, which act as a cheap filler, so you need to add a greater quantity than if you use a homemade mix with more potent (and expensive) spices like cloves, cardamom, black pepper, etc. The spices, once ground, lose their potency in weeks, leading to a much-diluted version of their freshly ground selves.

I was wondering why garam masala is called that when garam means “hot” and the masala itself is not necessarily spicy. It is probably because of the warming nature of the spices used. This spice mix that goes into a garam masala varies across India, even though most masala brands sell a generic Punjabi version.

Let us take a look at a minimalist and maximalist version of garam masala.

Bengali gorom moshla is minimalistic in nature, with just three spices—cloves, green cardamom and cinnamon. It is used in aloo dum, khichuri (khichdi), cauliflower roast, dalna and chops. If you are a newbie in the kitchen or you don’t want to buy 10 different spices, try making this garam masala as your first project. You can also use this in other non-Bengali dishes instead of the Punjabi garam masala for a slightly different flavour.

In Punjabi garam masala, the variety and proportion of spices used varies from family to family. The ingredients commonly used are cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black pepper, black and green cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves and mace. It is used in Punjabi subzis like aloo-gobhi and samosas.

To prepare any variety of garam masala, toast the whole spices on a low flame in a heavy pan. Cool and grind to a fine powder.

Some varieties of garam masala use spices like fennel seeds, star anise, black cumin, long pepper and stone flower (dagad phool).

When adding garam masala to a dish, timing is everything. Whole garam masalas (khada masala) are added to oil or ghee at the start of cooking so the flavours are released instantly into the hot fat and then continue to release slowly during the process of cooking. Garam masala powder is often added as a finishing spice towards the very end of the cooking process of a dish or sprinkled on the surface after turning off the flame so that the dish retains the flavours of the spices.

Here are two simple recipes whose flavour is elevated by the presence of garam masala.

Serves 2-4

1 small pumpkin (~500g), peeled and cut into small cubes
1 tbsp mustard oil (or any other oil)
Half tsp garam masala
Half tsp chilli flakes
Half tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. In a bowl, toss the pumpkin cubes with the oil, garam masala, chilli flakes and salt. Spread them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes, or until the pumpkin cubes are tender and lightly browned on the surface.

Serve with dal and rice or toss it with some cooked quinoa and greens to make a salad.

Note: You can also add some other vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes and bell peppers to the tray for a colourful roast veggie dish. You can also make this in an air fryer.

Serves 2

2 eggs
4 tbsp milk
A pinch of salt
2 tbsp finely chopped onions
2 tbsp finely chopped tomatoes (seeds removed)
1 tbsp finely chopped coriander
1-2 green chillies, finely chopped
2-3 pinches of garam masala
4 slices of bread
1 tbsp butter or ghee

Break the eggs in a deep dish and whisk well. Add the milk, salt, onion, tomato, coriander, chillies and garam masala. Whisk to combine all the ingredients.

Heat a pan and brush some oil or ghee on it.

Dip a slice of bread in the egg mixture so that it is well coated on both sides. Transfer it to the hot pan. Spoon some of the tomato-onion mix on top of the slice if needed. Once the bottom side is cooked, turn it over and cook the other side until golden brown. Depending on the size of the pan, two slices can be cooked at the same time. Use the required quantity of butter or ghee while cooking the bread. The egg should be cooked through with golden spots on the surface.

Repeat the process for the remaining slices. Serve hot.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram. 

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