My great grandmother’s garam masalas. Or whatever.

I was asked about garam masala recipes after my post on Spinach Moong Masoor Dal, so I’ve decided to post the two recipes I use. Garam masala, ground “warm” spices, are generally used as a finishing aromatic touch much like ground black pepper is used in the west. Recipes vary from region to region, household to household, and probably even person to person within households (think in-laws, heh). I wish I could tell a story about how my great grandmother created these recipes to the acclaim of my family, but she died well before I met her, and, more to the point, she wasn’t Indian. But any homemade garam masala will be better than most store bought masalas which have been ground God-knows-when. To keep them fresh, I make small batches at a time.

Cardamom podsConsider these base recipes only, especially as they reflect my personal tastes. For instance, I always avoid black cardamom because the smokiness is overpowering, I reduce quantities of coriander seed because I find the flowery flavor cloying, and I routinely increase green cardamom because I love it so very very much. There are thousands of other recipes, some with mace, saffron, white peppercorn, fennel, ajwain, chili, coconut, and even dals. For the sake of my sanity, I stick to these two recipes alone. Here’s a good life motto: Take life one masala a time. My great grandmother taught me that. She was a wise woman. As far as I know.

By the way, for beginners or even veterans, I recommend the outstanding The Indian Spice Kitchen by Monisha Bharadwaj, which provides full color photographs of spices, herbs, dals, grains, vegetables, nuts, etc., and covers many obscure regional ingredients as well. It even includes medicinal uses for each ingredient and some 200 recipes. My main complaint about the book is that I didn’t buy it early on when I started cooking Indian. It would have saved me many headaches.

Based on recipes by Julie Sahni and Madhur Jaffrey

This is a more classic recipe for garam masala, notable for its use of expensive spices such as green cardamom, which is why this style is not generally commercially available. Of course, expensive is a relative term. If you buy your spices at an Indian grocer, this batch will cost pennies, another benefit of making it at home. It’s lighter, sweeter, and more delicate than most store bought garam masalas and best in cream, milk, or fruit-based dishes, particularly those of northern India. According to Sahni, most of these spices are so inherently fragrant and easy to digest that they do not need roasting, but other sources say roast away. Due to my inherent laziness, I roast only the cumin seeds. To roast spices, shake them in a small pan over medium heat until fragrant and a shade or two darker in color. Cool, then grind all spices and store in an airtight container away from heat and light. Use within three months.

2 Tablespoons cardamom seed
2″ cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons black cumin seed OR regular cumin seed
2 teaspoons black peppercorn
2 teaspoons cloves
1/4 of a nutmeg

Based on many recipes

This is a cheaper and more common garam masala that works well in tomato and onion dishes. It resembles commercial versions more closely than the Mughal version. Roast all spices in a pan over medium heat until fragrant and one or two shades darker. I like to roast each spice separately since they differ in size, but they can be roasted all at once too. Let cool. Grind all spices and store in an airtight container away from heat and light. Use within three months.

2 Tablespoons cumin seed
2 Tablespoons coriander seed
2 teaspoons black peppercorn
2 teaspoons cardamom seed
2 teaspoons cloves
2″ cinnamon stick
1 Indian bay leaf OR 1 regular bay leaf
1/4 of a nutmeg


bullet Link du jour
Lisa has an interesting Pakistani-style garam masala recipe over at Kitchen Chick.

A recipe for cauliflower, potatoes, and abused friendship.

Mush gets no respect. It’s one step up from gruel, rhymes with slush, and features a character who regularly dresses in drag. “Why is that man wearing a dress? And why do those Koreans talk funny?” (Wait, that’s M.A.S.H. Never mind.) Most of my favorite foods are mushy: smashed potatoes, mushy peas—it’s even in the name!, bean puree, braised cabbage, the sludgy bottom of a big pot of lentil soup, the list goes on and on.

Bengali Cauliflower and Potato ChechkiI realize now that the reason I love cauliflower is not just for its sweet buttery taste, but for the mush that it was always destined to be. It’s not the low-carb mashed cauliflower people who taught me this either, it’s the Bengalis. When my friend Shalini offered to share her favorite family recipe for cauliflower and potato chechki, I eagerly accepted. Don’t tell her this, but I’m nice to Shalini mostly to score Bengali recipes, especially since Bengali cuisine is not nearly as well known or imitated as the cuisine of northern India. She may be on to me though. I’ve noticed that she gives me only one recipe every two years, spacing them out all sneaky like. That reminds me, I need to pick up a tiara.

A chechki is a dish with vegetables cut into small pieces. This chechki uses the classic Bengali spice mixture panch phoron, generally equal parts black mustard seed, fenugreek seed, fennel seed, nigella, and cumin. Radhuni, hard to find outside of Bengal, is the traditional panch phoron spice used instead of or in addition to the mustard. Gernot Katzer at his phenomenal spice site suggests celery seed as a replacement. Not having tasted radhuni myself, I can’t verify that this is good advice, but if I’m extra nice to Shalini (whose mother just happens to have a large stash of radhuni), that may change. Being nice is both cheaper and easier than actually going to India, though that depends a great deal on how many carats each diamond in your bribing tiaras have.

Panch phoronPanch phoron always entrances me, both with its physical beauty and its complex flavors. In this dish, every bite is different—one bite has the flavor of sweet mustard, another bite the surprise of minty fennel, still another bite the bitter fragrance of fenugreek. Those spicy surprises are even more intriguing popping out from within soft bits of cauliflower smooshed into warm potatoes. It’s mush, and mush is comfort, and comfort studded with spice is a treasure. Think of it as a tiara on a plate.

From Shalini’s mother

· 1-2 Tablespoons oil
· 1/2 teaspoon panch phoron
· Pinch or two of asafoteida
· 2 medium potatoes, cubed (I like Yukon Gold)
· 1 small cauliflower, cut into small pieces
· 1 teaspoon salt
· 1 teaspoon sugar
· 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
· 1 medium tomato, diced
· 1 1/2 teaspoons grated ginger
· Minced cilantro

1) In a large pan, heat the oil until nearly smoking. Add the panch phoron, which should sputter, and add a pinch or two of asafoteida.

2) Add the potatoes and cauliflower. Stir for a few minutes, then stir in the salt, sugar, turmeric, and tomato. Cover the pot and lower heat to medium-low. Cook 7-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until vegetables are tender.

3) Remove the lid. If there’s any water in the pot, raise the heat to cook it off. Sprinkle with the grated ginger and cilantro to taste. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let the dish rest for several minutes to develop aroma. Taste, adjust for seasonings, and serve.


bullet Link du jour
More delightful mush, a recipe for Khichdi-Kadhi from Nupur from One Hot Stove.

One percent of India and bowl of dal, please.

The first hint that I would never truly tame Indian food came early on in my cooking education. Having run out of storebought garam masala, I decided to grind my own from a spice collection that had, by then, grown quite large. I confidently turned to my cookbooks and pulled down Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffey, which listed one recipe. Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni listed two recipes. 1000 Indian Recipes by Neelam Batra listed five recipes. Then I picked up The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Yamuna Devi, which listed a staggering eight recipes. None of the recipes I found were alike, and that was just the first four books I pulled. I could have wept cardamom pods.

Spinach moong masoor dalEventually I followed Sahni’s advice and made two garam masalas, one a delicate cardamom-based masala for yogurt and cream dishes, and the other a hearty cumin- and coriander-based masala for onion and tomato dishes. But the garam masala was only my first lesson in humility. The full scope of my ignorance became even more apparent as food blogs exploded and talented Indian cooks posted about their native foods with an authenticity and skill that I will never achieve. At one time I thought I could conquer 10 percent of Indian cuisine. The vastness of India and its countless regional and personal variations killed that hope. Now I’m shooting for an ambitious one percent. Wish me luck.

However much I don’t know about Indian food, I can still write about it with love. Mystery is as good in food as it is in lovers; it keeps you on your toes. Sometimes I take a break from Indian cooking. When I come back to it I always wonder why I ever left. I never tire of cumin seeds oozing streams of tiny bubbles in hot oil, onions darkening into shades of burnished oak and maple, and turmeric invading the weave of my apron no matter how I try to keep it clean. It’s a fabulous time. Here’s one of my favorite recipes; I hope you love it too.

Serves 2 as a meal, 4 as a side
Adapted from a recipe from Spice of India in Kitchener, Ontario

This was posted on an online cooking forum as “the best dal ever.” The poster tells me that it’s from an Indian grocery store owned by a Gujarti woman. I don’t know if it’s the best dal ever, but it’s my personal favorite because of the addition of silky baby spinach. It makes fantastic leftovers, so much so that I almost never eat this the day I make it. You can serve this with yogurt, breads, or any sides you’d like, but I love it just as it is, slurped hot from a spoon. The recipe doubles easily.

· 1/2 cup red lentils (masoor dal)
· 2 Tablespoons split hulled green mung lentils (moong dal)
· 1 3/4 cups water
· 2 Tablespoons ghee or oil
· 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
· 1 medium tomato, diced
· 1/4 teaspoon whole cumin seed
· 3/4 teaspoon salt
· 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
· 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
· 1/2 teaspoon teaspoon ground chili pepper or to taste
· 1/2 teaspoon amchur (dried green mango) or 1 teaspoon lemon juice
· 6 ounces baby spinach (more or less is fine)

1) Pick over the lentils and remove shriveled bits and pebbles. Rinse thoroughly until the water runs clear. Drain.

2) Place lentils in a medium pot with the water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and keep lentils at a gentle simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally. Add some hot water if the mixture seems too thick. Keep in mind that lentils thicken a bit after cooling, so keeping the pot just a bit on the watery side is best.

3) While the lentils cook, place a medium pan on medium heat. Heat the ghee until it shimmers, then add the cumin seeds. They should sizzle immediately. After about 15 seconds, add the onion slices and fry, stirring frequently, until they turn sticky and brown.

4) Add the diced tomato to the onions and cook until the tomato disintegrates. Add the remaining spices and cook until the mixture becomes pasty and thick, several more minutes.

5) When the lentils are tender (this takes 20-30 minutes), add the spinach to the lentils and stir, working in batches if necessary so that the spinach wilts and makes room for additional spinach. Pour the onion/tomato mixture into the lentils and spinach, stir well, then cover and let sit for a few minutes to cook the spinach and develop flavors. Taste and adjust for salt before serving.


bullet Link du jour
Mallika at Quick Indian Cooking recently posted a recipe for a similar Dhal Palak (spinach lentils).