If you ask a South Asian cook to share their recipe for garam masala, they will probably tell you it’s a guarded family secret. As an authentic blend, it is quite surprising that there is no one recipe for garam masala, most families have their own combinations and proportions of spices, and indeed it can incorporate from as little as three to a dozen or more ingredients. And while these blends can vary greatly in composition, in most you will find some or even all of these classic spices; black cardamom, green cardamom, bay leaves (Asian teyzpat), mace, cinnamon, cumin, black peppercorns and cloves.
Garam masala translates to ‘hot spice blend’ but it is more a mix of warm spices and their constitution is based on the South Asian philosophy of ‘warming’ the body, mind and soul. They bring flavour to a dish without burning the palate and a key element to balancing its effect is to always season your dish perfectly to bring the spices to life.
I grew up in Pakistan, where garam masala is used in most recipes for rice, meat, vegetables and poultry. It is included at different stages of cooking as we build layers of flavour and how we use it depends on the key ingredient of the dish. For meats, rice, and poultry; ‘khara garam masala’ (whole garam masala blends), are traditional and added to hot oil to infuse the aromatics into the oil. Ground garam masala are versatile and can be added during cooking, and even at the end as a garnish; reviving, enhancing and preserving the flavour of the spices and other ingredients in the dish. I personally love to top lentils, rice and finish curries with my blend!
It is the evocative aroma of freshly ground garam masala that always transports me back to my mother’s kitchen in Pakistan. Be it the haunting aroma of biryani infused with star anise and cinnamon or the hot ghee tempering of cumin seeds poured with a sizzle over lentils with a dusting of garam masala powder. This authentic blend alone can help achieve a true South Asian flavour to your food.
2 heaped tablespoons
four-inch stick of cinnamon
black peppercorn (reduce if you don’t like too much heat)
Break down the cinnamon and add with all the spices into a spice grinder and blend until fine. (You can also dry roast in a warm pan gently for a few minutes, cool before grinding).
Store in a airtight glass jar, store in a cool dry place away from other conflicting aromas. Consume with 4-6 weeks, for freshness sake
Don’t restrict its use in just curries, experiment with it add it to grilled haloumi, mix in yoghurt with ginger and garlic to make a simple marinade for barbequed chicken or put a pinch in chocolate truffles!
Sumayya is a food writer and cookery teacher who grew up in Pakistan, but has now found home in Glasgow. Sumayya is passionate about sharing the flavours of her homeland with a view to highlight Pakistani cuisine as a distinct one. The author or two cookbooks: Summers Under The Tamarind Tree (Frances Lincoln) and Mountain Berries and Desert Spice (Frances Lincoln, out April 2017), her writing reminisces about food and memories growing up in Pakistan. She writes for many publications, appears on television, and co-presents BBC Kitchen Cafe weekly, on BBC Radio Scotland.