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History & Culture

Garam Masala | Origin of Indian Spices

Many Westerners only know the generic British term "curry", but there's so much more to Indian spices! Garam masala, for example, is a blend of spices commonly used across India.

When I first came to Scandinavia from India in the 1980s, hardly anybody knew of turmeric, let alone the spice Garam masala. But today, Garam masala is nearly a household name, found in a variety of Indian dishes. If you’ve ever ordered Chicken Tikka masala, Tandoori chicken or Biryani, chances are your dish was made with Garam masala.

Origins of spices

Written documents on Indian spices can be traced back to the first century (CE) in the Indian holy book, Ramayana.3 Spices are the soul and body of Indian cuisine. Without them, it’s impossible to create the taste, aroma, fragrance or flavour of authentic Indian food.  In India, spices can be classified into three categories: Basic, Complementary and Aromatic spices.3 There were times when aromatic spices such as Saffron, nutmeg, and cardamoms were too expensive for all but the most affluent families, whereas basic spices such as chillies, coriander and cumin were cheaper and therefore affordable for the poor.4

Fun Fact: Spices are also used for their medicinal properties in Indian traditional medicine, known as Ayurveda. Recently, fresh turmeric has gained acclaim for its antibiotic, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory effects.5 

What is Garam masala?

Garam masala is a north Indian dry spice mixture. In Hindi, the name Garam masala means “hot mixture of spices”, and as the name suggests, Garam masala is a hot and pungent spice mix. In India, Garam masala spice mix notoriously varies from one region to another—in fact, it’s made from a spice palette of up to 32 ingredients! 

Each household even has its own flavour of Garam masala, which mostly depends on the dish you wish to make. Moreover, the colour of Garam masala also varies from brown earthy to deep orange, depending on how you tweak the ratio of the spices.

What is Garam masala made of?

The main spices that are commonly used in Garam masala are coriander seeds, black cumin seeds, green cardamoms, cloves, cinnamon and pepper. Additionally, aromatic spices such as nutmeg, star anise and mace are sometimes blended in, depending on the taste you prefer. 

There are a few commonly known Garam masala mixtures—notably Kashmiri Garam masala and Punjabi Garam masala, which are used in a variety of dishes in India. There are even several twists to these Garam masalas in Kashmirian and Punjabi styles. Here are two prominent blends and how to make them:

Kashmiri Garam Masala Blend6

Originating from the state of Kashmir, the Kashmiri Garam masala blend consists of cumin seeds, green cardamom, coriander seeds, whole black peppercorns, fennel seeds, cinnamon stick, cloves, bay leaf, nutmeg, turmeric, Kashmiri chilli and ginger. This blend can be used in Indian dishes such as Rogan josh, rice pulao and Kashmiri Paneer gravy among other recipes. 

Punjabi Garam Masala Blend7

Coming from the Punjab state, the Punjabi Garam masala includes ingredients such as cumin seeds, green cardamom, coriander seeds, whole black peppercorns, fennel seeds, cinnamon stick, cloves, bay leaves, dry ginger powder and nutmeg are commonly used. Punjabi Garam masala is one of the main ingredients in the famous Indian dish Chicken tikka masala. 

When to use Garam Masala?

Sometimes, Garam masala is used at the beginning of the cooking process, and sometimes at the end. This will depend on whether or not the spices are roasted before grinding. 

When roasted, the Garam masala is added at the end of the cooking process to give the food a burst of flavour and aroma. If the mixture is not roasted, it should be added to the hot oil from the beginning to bring out its aromas and flavours.

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