Garam masala refers to a blend of spices most often associated with Northern India and Southern Asia cuisine. Technically speaking, its name translates to Hindi as “hot mix of spices”, however, it’s actually not “hot” in the jalapeño-sense of the word. Actually the name refers to the traditional Hindu system of medicine, known as Ayurveda, in which the spice was renowned for it’s ability to “heat the body” and aid in digestion. Basically this means that the spice mix creates intestinal warmth… although to be fair –I would argue- that jalapeños also do a good job heating my body… but I guess that’s different.
When it comes to the exact components of the mix, different people will tell different things, but there is actually no universally set mixture of spices that makes up garam masala. This is due to the evolution and fusion of the dish through different regions over many years. However, there are a few key players that tend to make up most mixes, each of which contributes a unique flavor profile to the final dish. Cinnamon and cloves add notes of sweetness, peppercorns bring a bit of heat, coriander and cumin contribute a bit of spiciness, and fennel… does… whatever that oddly-irresistible licorice seed does! Combined this mixture has beautifully synergistic flavor boosting properties that are both powerfully aromatic, and extremely versatile.
Traditionally this jack-of-all-trades spice mix has found its way into nearly all types of vegetable and meat based dishes –regardless of preparation style. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that it is able to effortlessly meld and boost other flavors, or stand on its own to make a previously bland dish dance with a symphony of tastes. With that being said, the most traditional use of the mix is in soups, sautés, and stews –often times forming a sort of curry. However, stepping out of this traditional box is nothing to fear!
Try smashing it in with a bowl of guacamole to create a mouth watering Indi-Mex fusion, use a dash when cooking rice –or any grains- to add a little life to those boring side dishes, or try warming some in oil before caramelizing your next batch of onions. However you end up using it, your tastes buds are bound to be in for a treat, so don’t be afraid to get creative! Rest assured that this intensely aromatic spice mix has stood the test of time for a good reason.