Ever wondered why, despite faithfully following an Indian recipe shared by a generous cook, your dish doesn’t quite smell or taste like the original? You haven’t changed a thing, but something vital is missing – garam masala powder, a combination of multiple aromatic ingredientsthe final sprinkling of magic dust!

Garam masala, which translates to “warm spice,” is a blend of spices that adds a little heat and oomph to your dish. It typically includes roasted and ground spices such as fennel, coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom. According to Margaret Shaida’s book The Legendary Cuisine of Persiathe term originates from Persian, where “garm” means hot and “masaleh” refers to ingredients.

Garam masala powder is essentially a blend of spices, usually roasted and ground. Often, a spoonful is added at the end of cooking, and stirred in, to enhance the flavor of dishes. It includes key aromatics––a combination of fennel/saunf, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom––lending a distinctive fragrance and flavor. This aromatic mixture isn’t just about flavor; ingredients like cardamom, cinnamon, and clove, according to ancient texts like the Ayurvedic Charaka Samhita, belong to a category of aromatic drugs known as Sarvagandha. These spices offer medicinal and healing properties beneficial to the body.

Each region in India crafts its own garam masala blend based on local spices and culinary traditions. I’ve put together some very simple — and not so simple — but quintessential garam masala recipes here. You can prepare it in small quantities and keep it handy in your kitchen, and avoid the hideous packeted garam masalas.

With garam masala, for once, we have an ingredient mix predating the Mughals in India.

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The Ni’matnama, compiled between 1495 and 1505 by Ghiyath Shah, the sultan of Malwa, and Nasir Shah, his son, mentions elaborate spice blends similar to garam masala, predating Babur’s arrival. This blend likely traveled from India to Persian kitchens, influencing the Persian spice blend advice. Persian chefs employed by Mughal rulers in India during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries probably introduced garam masala to Iran.

One of the simplest yet Flavorful garam masalas to prepare is the Bengali garam masala. Combine equal parts cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon and grind into a fine powder without roasting. Add a teaspoon to dishes like chicken curry, kosha mangsho, or alur dum just before finishing, and enjoy the enhanced flavors. Thank me later!

garam masala With garam masala, for once, we have an ingredient mix predating the Mughals in India. (Photo: Freepik)

If you like me, love Lucknowi or Awadhi cuisine but struggle to replicate its flavors in dishes like biryani or kebabs, missing out on Lazzat-e-Taam garam masala could be the reason. I came across this unique blend in Adil I Ahmed’s book on Awadhi cuisine, Tehzeeb, which includes exotic ingredients such as allspice, lemongrass, and rose petals known for their digestive properties. Inspired by hakims or practitioners of Unani medicine, this closely guarded recipe adds a rich depth to dishes. Once you have procured all the spices, roasted and ground them, simply add a spoon of it to your kebabs or biryanis and you’ll start thinking you’re dining in an Awadhi mansion.

The ingredient list for the Lucknowi Lazzat-e-Taam garam masala is as complex as the Bengali garam masala one is simple. You will need to lightly roast and then grind into a powder the following:

5 gms cloves

7 gms green cardamoms

3 gms mace

2 gms cinnamon

1 nutmeg

5 gms black pepper

5 gms Coriander seeds

5 gms allspice

5 gms of grated coconut

5 gms of jarakhush/dried lemon grass

5 gms of cumin

5 gms of caraway seeds

5 gms of sandalwood powder/ since we are not Veerapan’s offspring I just use 2.5 gms Ceylon Cinnamon instead

3 gms rose petals

5 gms makhana

1 gm bay leaf

5 gms poppy seeds

5 gms fennel seeds

5 gms anise seeds

5 gms white pepper

3 dried fennel leaves

1 tbsp kewra water

1 tbsp mitha ittr – essential oil of rose

It’s fascinating that many garam masala ingredients have origins outside India. Cinnamon arrived from Ceylon, while nutmeg, cloves, and mace came from the volcanic Maluku Islands in Eastern Indonesia, and large black cardamoms from the Eastern Himalayas.

The other garam masala which I absolutely love is the Maharashtrian Goda garam masala. God means “sweet” in Marathi, but the sweetness being referred to here is of the fragrance of the masala. This is a robust garam masala which should be used judiciously. And is generously used in Maharashtrian dals and vegetables.

It features stone flower (patthar ke phool), which releases its flavor when heated, and Cobra’s Saffron (Nagkesar), known for its citrusy-woody notes and used in Ayurvedic medicine. Unique additions like coconut, sesame seeds, and niger seeds (karale or khurasni) lend it versatility, perfect for creating delightful dry chutneys.

To make Goda masala, roast all the ingredients given below, separately, in a frying pan or kadai with a teaspoon of oil, wait for them to cool and then grind to a powder.

8 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 tablespoons cumin seeds

2 teaspoons of caraway seeds/shahi jeera

3 teaspoons of niger seeds (karale)

7 tablespoons sesame seeds

6 tablespoons desiccated coconut

4 to 5 broken dry red chilies

¼ teaspoon asafoetida

Once done, add 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil in the pan and add all the ingredients listed below and roast together:

4 to 5 pieces of 1 inch cinnamon sticks

7 to 8 small-sized tej pattas

½ teaspoon black peppercorns

3 star anise

25 cloves

1 black cardamom

5 to 6 green cardamoms

1 teaspoon cobra’s saffron (nagkesar)

3 tablespoons of stone flower (dagad phool or patthar ke phool)

Cool all the ingredients and then grind to a powder. This is lovely as a final masala on dals and vegetables and even curries.

There are many more garam masalas from across India––from the Kashmiri garam masala, which uses mace and nutmeg, to the Punjabi one. And it’s worth trying out all of them to understand the difference in flavors. But for now, we’ll end it at these three garam masalas, and leave something for later.

Next week, I’ll be writing about that favorite staple across India – paneer, and why at one point, it was considered inauspicious to make paneer in kitchens in India. And we’ll talk about the only region that uses paneer or chhena in its desserts.