Masala: Spice Blends & All the Hooplah About It

What About Masala? 

A mystery to outsiders and oh so precious to us in the Indian Kitchen, Masalas or Spice Blends have always been a topic of discussion for the enthusiastic cook. Every Indian home will have a Masala Dani and here is what a typical Masala Dani looks like. Clockwise from the Top: Coriander Powder, Cumin, Mustard Seeds, Dried Mango powder (Any Souring Agent), Turmeric, Red Chili and Garam Masala.

Masala Dani
Masala Dani

That, right in the center of all the regular masalas is Mom’s Garam Masala. It could be a packaged blend but most often that’s the one, magic masala of the family. There are so many different Spice blends like that.

My 91 year old, ‘dooorr-ki-rishtedaar’ nani (vaguely related maternal grandmom), who can barely see & tells spices apart only by smell, is sitting on her avadhi masala recipe like a hen on eggs. Waiting for them to hatch! We have eaten that delicious Korma-of-sorts a dozen times; it is dense, rich with a light brown tinge, and a flavor so unique, yet subtle that compliments the meat but doesn’t overpower it, just blends in somehow but once you eat it, it gets imprinted in your mind. Its not cardamom or peppercorn or coriander, or may be it’s all of them; you can’t put a finger on what the masala is. It is a like a riddle in my head.

I’ve been asking her for over a decade and each time she starts with another, ‘areyy Monto jab chhota thha’ tale (when my son was a child), only to distract me. It is funny how some moms & Chefs are possessive about their ‘secret masala’ or the Khandani recipe. While some mothers, like my own are always ready to make you note down their masala proportions, others will go one step ahead and pack you a bottle of their home blend of garam masala, kaanda masala or even chai masala.

A typical morning when, even as we open our eyes in bed to the whiff of ginger, pepper and cardamom, our mother (wider smile when it’s the husband or dad or brother) brings us that soothing blend of spices in a steaming cup of masala chai. And as we walk out on the street, the tadka jingles in home kadhais or rasta thelas, each time you inhale a cloud of unique scent that fills the air.

Then lunch is the most pleasing hour, as Gujarati, Punjabi, Sindhi, Goans, Tamilians all open their dabbas at one lunch table, each masala smells more captivating and each dabba more tempting than my own. My bhindi, jeera aloo never take more than 2 minutes to finish, not that Rachel’s fish curry or Aman’s sai bhaji take any longer. Then there’s always that one colleague whose dabba we are all eyeing, who never gets to eat her own food, Poulomi’s dabba, even her baingan in panchphoran (mustard, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, onion seeds) is yummy.  Then comes the 5pm tea break and the hingwala ragda pattice, bhuna jeera in pani puri or pav bhaji with it.

Even as the food settles down, the moment I enter my galli (lane), hunger strikes again as I pass from below every kitchen window, I can picture myself trying to blow and cool that anardana chhole on my spoon, just slurping that kadhi or biting that chunk of chicken masala. Masala, in many ways, is a part of our soul as well as the soul of an Indian kitchen.

Sometimes even gravies and curries are referred to as masalas, but here I mean to refer to the dry spices, and the blend of spices that we use in our kitchens everyday. Thirty kitchens in my building and all my neighbors have a different family masala. In fact, every home in India must be having a blend of its own. There are some broad types like goda masala, bottle masala, Kashmiri Ver masala, garam masala and so on. Then there are subtypes of these main masalas and so on. Garam Masala, is by far the trickiest one of them all, because you never know what spices, proportions or blend is being used under the broad field of garam masala. Garam Masala literally means a blend of hot spices, but it may be a blend of hot spices like cloves, peppercorns along with sweeter spices such as fennel, cardamom or mace. In culinary school we were told that Garam Masala must have these five spices:

Cloves

Peppercorn

Cinnamon

Cumin

Cardamom

Plus any other spices that you would like to add for a particular character in your blend. For instance, adding coriander seeds and cumin will lessen the heat of the blend, adding mace, fennel or green cardamom will give it sweet undertones. It is really a matter of what you prefer and you can play with the proportions accordingly.

I don’t always like the spices we get in Mumbai supermarkets, so I have my Mallu friends send me intense, gorgeous spices from Kochi or I pick them up myself from the Mapsa spice market in Goa. I am yet to find spices ONLY market in Mumbai with quality as good as in the South.

Making the Perfect Spice Blend

To bring out the best in any spice blend, there is one technique that I have found most useful in home kitchens, and that is, roasting each spice separately on low heat (preferably in earthenware), to roast slowly. The roasted spices are then cooled separately and pounded together to bring out maximum flavor and oils in the spices. In the modern kitchen you can also blitz the spices in the grinder. This method of roasting and cooling separately gives you the luxury of altering proportions as you grind the blend.

I borrowed this technique of blending spices from the East Indian method of making Bottle Masala. Although this closely guarded secret of East Indian families also includes sun drying the 30 or so spices before roasting, I like to apply the roasting technique for my garam masala.

East Indian families are very secretive about their spice blends, just like my grandmom. The bottle masala includes lesser-known spices like maipatri and nagkesar, known to fewer people even in a Spice country like India. However, they are not the only ones protective of their traditional recipes. We often wonder how we never get that right flavor, of that Shammi kebab, the Chhole or perhaps a payasam but we don’t realize we may try 10 different blends but there’s a ‘secret’ ingredient missing. Walk into the lanes of Old Hyderabad, Old Delhi or Avadh (now, Old Lucknow) and you will find spices unheard of even by your parents or grandparents. Some such spices that I came across during my research for Masterchef India include Jungli Laung, Pipli Peppers, Khus ki jadd, Paan ki jadd, Kababchini, among others. If you think this is gibberish, you’ll be surprised how many people are unfamiliar with Terphal and Dagdphool, spices that are common for a Maharashtrian but vague for a Bihari for instance.

It isn’t right or wrong, but protecting these great ‘Khandani Masalas’ can put them in danger of becoming lost or extinct. Kalpana Talpade, a charming lady from Mumbai belongs to a Pathare Prabhu family. This community is one of the oldest inhabitants of Mumbai with a simple yet unique cuisine of their own. Kalpana aunty told me that Pathare Prabhu families were very protective of their family recipes and refused to share them with outsiders.

Good Reads

Food Writers and bloggers like Maunika Gowardhan  have not only preserved but also popularized the versatility of Indian cuisine and masalas around the world. Other writers like Kalpana Talpade for the lesser-known Pathare Prabhu cuisine, Anjali Koli’s rare recipes for Koli cuisine, Sutapa Ray for Bengalis living abroad have shared some wonderful recipes and won accolades for their unique masalas and recipes. US based Indian Restaurateurs like Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala have understood, explained and popularized the use of indian masalas around the world as a contribution to a lovely book called the Flavour Bible by Karen Page.

Useful Masala Blends

For now, here are some spice blends that I find magical and would love to share with you.

This one is inspired, but an easier version of the Buknu Masala, which is used in Lucknow as a digestive and like Chaat Masala to be added on top of salads or kebabs, chutneys, eaten raw with puris or just sprinkled to spice things up. It is very good for the stomach, easy to prepare and can literally spike up any boring routine meal.

 You Will Need:

 Black Salt (kala Namak) 250g

Asafoetida(Hing) 10g

Turmeric (haldi) 20g

Himalayan Pink Salt (Sendha Namak) 20g

Dried Ginger Powder (Sonth) 20g

Dried IndianGoosberry (Amla) 20g

Cumin (Jeera) 10g

Carom Seeds (Ajwain) 10g

Mustard Oil, Cooked on high heat till the fumes come out and the cooled to use.

Use the whole, khada forms of haldi, hing and kala namak if they’re available to you easily.

Method:

Individually slow roast all the spices on low heat until they puff up a little. (it should puff like flour does when making roux).

If you are using whole or khada spices, then pound them a little in Mortar pestle. Finally, grind this mixture and store it an air-tight bottle.

This one is my Khaandani Chaat Masala from UP. Very flavourful and mildly refreshing, it has the intense flavor of bhuna jeera and dried mint. Add it to yogurt or any chaat item like Dahi Bhalla, to flavor Pani Puri or sprinkle on salad or dry veggie preparations.

You will need:

Mint (Pudina), sundried (or over dried) 1 part

Cumin (jeera), slow roasted  1 part

Black Salt (kala namak)  2 parts

Asafoetida (Hing), roasted   a pinch

Method:

Grind together and store in an air-tight container.

Okay, I haven’t got grandmom’s recipe and I promise I will post that as soon as I do. But here is a recipe of a Mutton Korma Masala from Lucknow that I have. Follow the method carefully, the processing of the spices is as important as the ingredients.

You Will Need:

Cinnamon (Dal Chini)

Nutmeg (jaiphal)

Mace (Javitri)

Black Cardamom (Badi Elaichi)

Green Cardamom (Chhoti Elaichi)

Cloves (Lavang)

Kababchini (Used in Avadhi Cuisine)

Kababchini used in Avadhi Cuisine from Lucknow
Kababchini used in Avadhi Cuisine from Lucknow

Carraway Seeds (Shahi Jeera)

Bay Leaf (Tej Patta)

Coriander Seeds (Sabut Dhaniya)

Whole Turmeric (Sabut Haldi)

Mustard Oil, Cooked on high heat till the fumes come out and the cooled to use.

All these Spices should be taken in equal parts by weight. Around 10g of each ingredient.

Method:

Soak all of the spices in water for an hour. Now the spices are slow roasted in low heat for 30 to 45 minutes. Place a tava below you pan for even and slow heating.

These spices are now coarsely ground on a grinding stone or Sil batta. (You can use the grinder but Masala made on the stone has better flavor)

This masala can now be stored or used to make Mutton Korma.

There is a treasure of unique spice blends like ‘Potli ka Masala’ in the interiors of our hometown, villages, Royal palaces and with hotel chefs from Gharanas or skilled families. If you are curious about masalas like me, then the best thing to do would be to ask mom or find the lady with the wrinkled hands because that’s where you can find magic.

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2 thoughts on “Masala: Spice Blends & All the Hooplah About It

  1. Anjali says:

    Thank you for the mention. I am honored to be in august company.

  2. foodmantras says:

    Your most welcome. It is wonderful to read your blog and the valuable recipes that you share on it.

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