If you’ve seen our herb and spice collection — a full three-level cabinet + overflow in the pantry — you are well aware of my fascination at the limitless possibilities. Curiosity never killed the adventurous cook. (Unless it’s fugu. Don’t eat fugu.)
Originating in the Punjab region of Northern India, garam masala is composed of familiar spices in a blend that may not be established in your kitchen. Yet.
The name literally translates to “hot spices,” but it’s more a deep warmth than fiery heat. Must-haves are cinnamon, black peppercorns, cardamom, nutmeg, and coriander. Ginger, cloves and mace typically find their way in as well. Maybe cumin, caraway, or nigella seed (also called black cumin, or kalonji).
Customarily prepared as needed to each family’s tastes, there is no one specific “recipe” for garam masala.
Here my foundational ingredients are floral cardamom, warm cinnamon and nutmeg, plus the gentle punch of heat from black peppercorns. Ginger and cloves fan the spicy sweet flames, and instead of coriander I turned to the uniquely aromatic fennel seed and star anise. A quick toast releases the oils in each spice, further enhancing and blending the flavors that go so brilliantly with many dishes from savory to sweet.
We enjoy this very warm and pungent mixture, but you can adjust amounts or types spices themselves to create something more to your liking.
What’s in it for me?
Though quantities used in the kitchen are typically small, spices are rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, and pack a powerful antioxidant punch. In addition to beneficial nutrients, spices (and herbs) impart color, aroma and intense flavor to meals, and allow cooks to enhance taste with less fat and salt.
Fennel seeds offer a small amount of fiber and manganese, as well as a mild anise-like fragrance and flavor. Some research suggests the seed’s high antioxidant content provides some anti-fungal properties, and, in addition to the fiber, may improve digestive function. In cultures around the world, fennel seeds are used by nursing mothers as a galactogogue thanks to phytoestrogens that stimulate lactation.
Of no relation to anise (fennel) plants or fennel seeds, the beautiful eight-pointed star anise is the seed pod of a small oriental evergreen tree. Imparting a pungent, faintly sweet black licorice-like flavor, star anise is regarded in cultures around the world as a galactogogue, an aphrodisiac, and a cure-all for maladies ranging from respiratory issues and GI distress to appetite loss and influenza. In fact, star anise is one of the top sources of shikimic acid — a key ingredient in producing a popular over-the-counter flu medication.
The tiny seeds inside green or black cardamom pods are what become the powdered version of this spicy-sweet, almost floral spice. Powdered or whole, cardamom offers potent antioxidant properties to boost activity of our immune cells and is a good source of manganese.
Cinnamon sticks are harvested from the inner bark of a southern Asian evergreen tree, the cassia. Scientists have isolated antioxidant polyphenols found in cinnamon that may help regulate blood glucose, insulin, blood pressure, and lipid levels, including LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. For instance, cinnamaldehyde — the essential oil responsible for cinnamon’s aroma and flavor — functions in the human body to increase peripheral blood flow. Research also suggests cinnamon may play a role in improved cognition and memory function.
The unopened buds of the flowering clove tree, intensely flavored cloves have been used for centuries in cultures around the world for preserving and pickling due in part to natural antibacterial properties of bioactive compounds. The primary oil compound called eugenol, found in rich supply in cloves, provides anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.
From yet another tropical evergreen tree we get nutmeg — the seed pit of a Myristica fragrans fruit. This is actually the only tree known to produce two different spices, as the lacy red membrane surrounding the hard nutmeg “pit” is a similarly flavored, yet more mild and sweet, spice called mace. Nutmeg is a good source of manganese, and its essential oils have antioxidant properties and provide a small amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Throughout history it is regarded both as an antimicrobial and, like star anise, a male aphrodisiac.
Peppercorns are the fruit of creeping vines in the piperaceae family: green peppercorns are unripe fruits, the black partially ripe, and white are ripe. (The pink variety actually aren’t peppercorns at all, but a fruit from the sumac, in the same family as pistachios, cashews, mangos and poison ivy.) The main active compound of peppercorns, called piperine, not only imparts the trademark spicy kick but also improves our body’s ability to absorb and utilize the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants discussed above.
The pros recommend garam masala be used as a finishing spice either at the table or added at the tail end of cooking for maximum flavor. In this manner it transforms hearty grains, vinaigrettes and sauces, soups and salads, lentils and beans, or its most popular use in India as a flourish to meat or vegetable curries.
But don’t let that stop you from using it as a dry rub for grilled meats, poultry and seafood, or sprinkling it over autumn and winter veg or a mixture of nuts before roasting — fantastic! In the baking mood? Add a pinch or two to breads or desserts, such as pie, cookies, or ice cream.
Mix several favorite spices for this exotic, very versatile blend with the potential to become a regular player in your kitchen.
Tell me… Do you also love garam masala? What’s your favorite spice blend?
- 1/4 cup fennel seeds
- 2 Tbsp green cardamom pods
- 1 Tbsp + 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 1/2 tsp whole cloves
- 1 cinnamon stick (2 to 3 inches long), broken into a few pieces
- 1 whole nutmeg
- 1 whole star anise
- Toast all of the spices in a small skillet over medium heat, shaking the pan or stirring frequently, until fragrant and just beginning to color, 2 to 4 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat, and set aside to cool 10 minutes.
- Transfer cooled spices to a spice grinder or coffee grinder. Mill until fine and powdery. Funnel the garam masala into a tightly sealing jar or container. Store in a cool cupboard or pantry up to 4 months for maximum freshness.
There is no one standard recipe for garam masala, so feel free to adjust ingredient amounts to your liking. Want more heat? Add an extra 1 tsp black peppercorns. Not as much a fan of fennel seed as you are cardamom? Swap amounts: 1/4 cup cardamom pods and 2 Tbsp fennel seeds. Or go in a completely different direction than us, turning to some of the other classic elements not featured in our blend, like cumin, coriander, nigella or mace.
Recipe adapted from Kurryleaves.
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