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Why Garam Masala?
Jul 20, 2021
Why Garam Masala?
No Indian dish is complete without a sprinkling of garam masala. Why do we add garam masala to our cooking though – just for flavor? Learn the science behind adding garam masala or other spices to your food and the right way to add them.
Indian spices are revered the world over. In ancient times, people in the west would store scant amounts of nutmeg and cinnamon in their treasure chests, to be pulled out only on special occasions. Spices ranked as high, and were probably as expensive, as silver or gold-spun cloth or stone-encrusted chalices in those times. The spice trade then was controlled by Arabs who were secretive about their sources and monopolized the over-the-land Spice Route. Voyagers and adventurers from the western world set out in search of a sea route to the fabled land of spices and eventually found fragrant, mysterious India. Empires were built, fortunes created and countries devasted by the spice trade. And we, in India, barely know the significance of them.
India has a long, complex history associated with spices. The first record of spices used in food and medicine is from the Vedas. Centuries later, the Mughals harnessed the power of these spices and built a cuisine that was luxuriantly rich in them. It was then, that spice blends, in the form of the now-ubiquitous garam masala, was born.
The richness of cardamom, the mellowness of nutmeg, the bite of pepper, the coolness of coriander, the smokiness of mace, the sweetness of cinnamon and the earthiness of cumin – all come together to form a garam masala that not only adds aroma to a dish but deep layers of mystical flavour that can’t be achieved with anything else. Each region in India has a unique blend, each household has their own secret garam masala. In the north of India, spices are dry roasted and ground together. In the south, they’re usually made into a wet paste with the addition of coconut or vinegar. And as you go from north to south, the fieriness of the garam masala increases with variations in the quantity and varieties of red chili. Our own blend, Ammijis Garam Masala is a quintessential north India variation, with Kashmiri red chilis, black pepper and long pepper or pippli added for the heat.
All spices have their own unique benefits. They are full of antioxidants and other compounds that have a direct effect on our health. Cumin aids digestion and has even been known to have a positive effect on IBS. Cinnamon is renowned for its regulatory effects on diabetes. Clove and cardamom have been proven to hamper the multiplication of cancer cells. The list goes on, each spice having its own positive effect on the body. A blend that consists of all these beneficial spices will have the cumulative benefits of all of them. And when you use this blend daily, like we do the garam masala, the body reacts positively. Garam masala will regulate your metabolism and will also warm you up, without hindering digestion. In fact, digestion, acidity and bloating can all be countered with spices.
Ammiji’s Garam Masala has 13 spices – each of them chosen carefully for its flavour profile and health benefits. The quality of spices is chosen carefully – cardamom is sourced from Kerala, nutmeg is the finest money can buy and stone flower or dagad phool is hunted for in Khari Baoli till we’re satisfied with the aroma. The spices are then dry roasted gently till they just start releasing their aroma, and ground into a not-so-fine powder. Each batch is made in the small quantity of about 12 jars at a time, and fresh spices are bought for each different batch. The end result is a powerfully aromatic blend with immense health benefits and a strong flavour profile. On the jar, there’s an instruction for its use –“Use Sparingly!”, and we mean it! Ammiji’s Garam Masala is a flavour bomb.
It is usually used to finish off a dish – you must have seen your mother or grandmother sprinkle some on a sabzi when it was cooked. Or it is used in the tadka we put on dals or in gravies. When spices meet heated oil or a heated surface, a chemical reaction occurs which adds layers of flavor and sometimes changes the flavour of a spice. Add it too soon, and you fear losing out on the delicious aromas released. But if you have used it at the beginning of a dish for some reason, you can always sprinkle a tiny bit at the end to enhance flavours. It can also be used as a dry rub or in marination. However you use it, just remember that a good garam masala only needs a pinch or so of it to add flavour and aroma. Too much of it would be overkill. And if you need to add too much of a homemade Garam Masala powder, then be aware that it doesn’t contain pure, premium spices as Ammiji’s Garam Masala does.