When I was a child, people would often recommend classic books that they thought I ought to read. I would try, but sometimes a book would be hard to understand, and I would put it aside and then come back to it a few years later. I had a similar experience with garam masala, the quintessential Indian spice mix. Its name translates literally as "warm spice mix."
I distinctly remember that as a child, after my mother dusted it over finished meat and vegetable curries, I would gently scrape the sprinkled spices off the food with a spoon and discard them into the nearest trash can. I could not understand why people liked such a strong-tasting spice mix.
The combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, mace, peppercorns, coriander and cumin was just overpowering for me. (While the word garam does mean "heat," it does not mean the spices are hot. It means that the spices raise the heat of the body by raising the metabolism.)
As I got older, however, I did what I have done with other classics that I did not understand as a child: I took another look. And I finally understood the magic behind garam masala. It makes such a difference in a dish: cinnamon adds sweetness, pepper adds heat, nutmeg adds complexity, coriander makes it a touch lemony and adds texture. The spices all play so well together!
When used whole, garam masala spices are called khada masala and are added to hot oil before the other ingredients. Once added, they begin to sizzle (the cumin) and unfurl (the cinnamon stick) and release their essence into the oil. For the ground version, the spices are gently roasted on a griddle until they release their aroma, then ground together into a powder and used primarily as a finishing spice. That is, it is added with a gentle hand, generally toward the end of the cooking process, often as the final garnish of a dish.
Recently, chefs have started adding garam masala to marinades, salad dressings and other dishes. I always add it to my vegetable sautes, and a touch works wonders in soups and stews. I have even used it to season the flour when baking bread. A quick survey of friends (online and off) reveals other lovely uses: sprinkle over cut winter squash before baking , use as a dry rub for meats before grilling, and even add to desserts such as pies and cookies.
When I learned to cook as a child, I always used to call it "the masala of don'ts." My mother would say, "don't add too much to the curry" or "don't put too much cardamom in the mix" or "don't add the ground masala to hot oil."
But here is the vrai probleme: There is no single recipe for this spice mix. Every region in India, every area, every house, every cook within every house has a favorite version. Though I never hesitate to buy other premixed spices, garam masala is one that I always make at home. It has to have the right balance of flavors that appeals to my palate. Some cooks like to add red pepper to it, others add nutmeg, some add saffron.
So, I leave you with one last don't: Don't forget to enjoy yourself when you make and taste this magical mix. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.