Indian food has for a long time been one of my preferred choices of chow. I love the delicate, sophisticated and refined flavors of Indian spice blends and am amazed how a little garam masala can bring any dull-tasting dish alive. I also love the diversity of the country’s regional cuisines, which is not very well-known in this part of the world (with the exception of London).
The word curry comes from the Tamil ‘Kari’, meaning a spicy, soupy sauce ladled over rice: To many people in the western world curry means Indian food, and is thought of as a fine powder, which is usually made from cumin, coriander seeds, fenugreek, black peppercorns, cinnamon and turmeric, which gives this powder its characteristic yellow color. This curry powder has been adopted as one of our own and is now integrated in many western cuisines as a way to give regional food an exotic touch.
In order to understand Indian cooking it is important to understand that the diversity of the country’s food is enormous, although one thing connects them all: masalas.
A masala, meaning ‘spices’, is a mix of dry and/or wet flavor agents, which is used to add aroma, taste and spice. Many westerners have probably heard the word garam masala before, which is a spice blend consisting of cardamom, bay leaves, black peppercorns, cumin seeds, and coriander seeds, cinnamon and cloves. This spice blend comes in other versions too, some containing star anise, mace, brown cardamom, nutmeg and/or fennel seeds. Garam, which means ‘hot’, does not refer to chili, as there is no chili present in the mix. Instead it refers to the intensity of flavor as highly aromatic and pungent spices are used.
Garam masala is an important spice blend in India, especially in the north. It is a sophisticated mix of spices, which gives a dish a subtle yet warm character. Garam masala, as many other masalas, is surrounded by controversy: whether or not to toast the spices, or which ones to toast, and whether or not to add star anise and/or other spices. Garam masala will be used in cooking classic Punjabi food like Murgh Tikka (Chicken Tikka), and Heavy Mortar suggests the following recipe:
Garam Masala (makes three tablespoons)
8 green cardamom pods
2 Indian bay leaves (cassia leaves)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
5 cm (2 in) piece of cinnamon stick (cassia cinnamon)
1 tablespoon cloves
1 star anise seed-pod
Remove the seeds from the cardamom pods and add to a pan with the rest of the spices. Toast on low heat for 2 minutes or until aromatic. Use a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle to grind the mix to a fine powder. If not used right away store in an airtight container and use within 3 months. After 3 months the mix will have lost its pungent and aromatic flavor.