Don’t mix up the masala mix
Chefs and food experts break a few myths about the garam masala, which is liberally used in cooking nowadays
Garam masala is a key element in Indian cooking. Most people think that dishes are incomplete without garam masala which is used to enhance the flavour and aroma of food.
Back in the day, every region and family had their own key ingredients to make the ‘masala’. But today, most of us don’t have the time to prepare fresh garam masala at home. Which is why we buy the readymade garam masala from the market and use it liberally in our cooking.
Chefs and food experts do believe that garam masala has a key role in Indian cooking, but we need to know the right way to use it.
We know that garam masala is an age-old mixture and its recipe has been passed down from one generation to the next. But no one really questions why a certain ingredient is added to the mixture and what role it plays.
Celebrity chef Ranveer Brar, however, says that garam masala is a new term and therefore has no legacy. “Earlier, there were two types of masalas — garam and thanda. Garam masala was used during winters and thanda, during summers. The ingredients used in both the masalas were according to what the body needed at that particular season. For example, garam masala had black pepper, black cardamom that generated heat in the body,” he says.
Celebrity chef Shailendra Kekade believes that garam masala has been overused in the recent years. “Garam masala was never meant to be the standard masala. We were supposed to use it during a particular season because it was a seasonal mix of spices, which was used to flavour certain dishes. Over a period of time, somebody made the readymade mixture with the fragrance and all, and we were like, ‘Let’s use it’. But there’s a process to prepare it, like you need to roast the spices at a particular temperature, make a powder and then store it at a particular temperature.”
Kekade tells us how mixing cardamom and cinnamon while preparing garam masala is not right. “Cardamom was used in summer because it had a soothing effect, cinnamon, on the other hand, was used in winter to heat up the body. But right now, we mix the two,” he says, adding that many people think that garam masala makes a dish spicy. “It’s not true, it adds flavour. If you want to add spice, use chilies,” he mentions.
Brar says that garam masala must have its unique blend of spices. “We were always known for our spice blends through which our cooking prowess could be seen. Garam masala was the unique part of every family and chef’s cooking. Now, people perceive it as a filler for making their dishes from decent to good,” he says.
Gulshan Kumar, executive chef, Orchid Hotel, Pune, says that garam masala needs to be added when you are finishing a dish and not while preparing it. “There are two types of masalas — whole and grounded. Whole garam masala is supposed to be added at the beginning of cooking a dish and the ground masala, at the end,” he says.
But the mix need not be added to every dish. In the past, our grandmothers and grandaunts knew that not all dishes needed the flavour of garam masala. But with readymade masalas available in the market, people use garam masala in everyday cooking. “But nobody has the time to analyse the ingredients that are being used,” says Brar.
It’s a known fact that the taste and ingredients of garam masala change from region to region, state to state. The ingredients used in Bengali homemade garam masala is different from the one used in Punjabi cooking.
In North India, garam masala is typically in powder form, while in South India, most of the times, it’s formed into a paste with coconut milk, vinegar, or water. In the eastern region, the basic ingredients used to make the masala include elaichi, laung, dhania and jeera. “The weather and local palate are kept in mind while mixing the ingredients,” says Brar however adding that one must include heat (kali mirch), fragrance (dhania and jeera) and elaichi (body) in the blend.
Like in Maharashtra, it’s goda masala, which is primarily used in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian cooking. YouTuber chef Madhura Bachal says that goda masala is flavourful, less spicy and is a signature spice of Maharashtrian cooking. “It is a perfect blend of whole spices which adds a subtle and unique taste to any dish. It also adds awesome flavour and aroma,” she says, adding, “The key ingredients are whole spices like star anise, stone flower which adds a unique flavour to the masala.”
Kekada says that our grandmothers knew which spice to use when. “They used to make pickle with mustard seeds during summer. It was prepared in a particular manner so that you could relish it during other seasons. For example, mustard gives heat to the body and we relished these pickles during winter,” he says.
Kumar adds that whole garam masala should be used while preparing biryani, pulav and a few Mughlai dishes. “It should be used according to the requirement of the dish. If it’s on the higher side, it will ruin the dish. Also, not all dishes need garam masala or else every dish will taste the same,” he says.