January 22, 2013

Mama Sawhney's Garam Masala

A fellow herbie asked me to recommend a generic blend of spices for curry today. I thought for sure I had posted my mom's recipe for Garam Masala on my blog. When I started to look for it, I couldn't find it anywhere. So during our regular call this evening, I had her list out all the ingredients so I could share it with Shirley, as well as anyone else who might be interested.  

Curry is a generic and rather Western term used to define what is actually a huge variety of dishes with origins across South East Asia. Varieties of curry vary even within different states and regions of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Maldives, Fiji and even Seychelles.  A common feature of all curries is that they incorporate more or less the same few spices and herbs (both fresh and dry) and some curries also include red hot chili peppers. Recipes for curry vary within each household and depending also upon the dish. Some recipes call for whole spices, while others use only ground powders and still others may use a combination.  

Curry powder, is a commercially prepared mixture of spices, and is again a very Western notion, originating back to the 18th century. Spice merchants returning from the then British colony of India would bring mixtures to Great Britain. Similar to family recipes in India, there are literally tens of varieties of curry powder in stores .. Balti Curry, Badia Curry, Madras Curry, Maharaja Style Curry, Sate Curry, Rogan Josh Curry, Sweet Curry, Red Curry, Yellow Curry, Tandoori seasoning, Vindaloo Curry .. the variety is a little mind-boggling. Interestingly, most Indians don't use commercially prepared curry powders. Most of us simply use home-made Garam Masala, or a blend of different whole or ground spices depending upon the dish.  The best way to find your favorite blend of curry is to play with the recipe until you find a blend you love :)

Garam Masala - North Indian Curry Powder
In Northern India, Garam Masala is the most common form of curry. Literally translated, it means 'Warm Spice' and the root of that term rests in tranditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda). This blend of spices is supposed to have a warming effect on the body and should be consumed sparingly, especially when used as a blend of all the spices together. While the recipe is quite traditional, depending upon individual families and their palate, the recipe varies across all of Northern India. The recipe below is what my mom has prepared for as long as I can remember. At the end of this post, I've also provided a list of optional ingredients that can be included. My mom only uses the Magic 8 in her recipe. 

I buy all my whole spices at the local Indian grocery store. I almost always pick up the in-store generic whole spices and almost never, except in case of an emergency, buy Brand-name spices. Most Indian stores import whole spices in bulk and then package them into smaller generic packs here. Also, whole spices last forever when stored appropriately (cool, air-tight conditions). 

  1. Cumin Seeds (whole) 100g (3.5oz)
  2. Black Cardamom (whole) 100g  (3.5oz)
  3. Black Peppercorns (whole) 100g (3.5oz), or to taste.
  4. Cinnamon sticks 25-35g (~1oz)
  5. Cloves (whole) 25-35g (~1oz)
  6. Green Cardamom 25-35g (~1oz)
  7. Bay Leaves 4-6 Medium sized leaves (~0.5oz)
  8. Nutmeg (whole bulb) 2-3 pcs 
Make sure that spices are dry and free of damp. Roasting spices prior to grinding is not recommended as that strips them of essential oils and aroma. Traditionally, my mom would sun-dry the spices in a metal tray on a hot and sunny day. One afternoon was usually sufficient to get rid of any residual moisture in any of the spices. In the U.S. during the winter months, it is also sufficient to leave them on a tray on the kitchen counter, or on top of the fridge, for a couple of days when the furnace is on (unless of course you have humidifier on!). Then, simply grind the spices to a fine powder and store in an air-tight container. My mom still sends me a jar every time someone visits from India, or whenever I visit her and when stored in a well sealed container, it will retain its aroma and essential oils for well over a year. Enjoy!!  

Optional Ingredients (Add in addition to those noted above):
  1. Cilantro seeds (whole) 100g (3.5oz)
  2. Turmeric root (whole)  (~0.5oz)
  3. Mace 25-35g (~1oz)
  4. Star Anise 25-35g (~1oz)
  5. Dried Red Chilli Peppers (whole), or to taste.
  6. Mustard Seeds (whole) 25-35g (~1oz), for a Southern Indian flavor. 

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