Flavor and Fragrance in India
An Indian spice mixture. A masala in Northern India is composed of dry spices pounded to make a powder that resists spoiling. Southern India prefers fresh or green spices ground with water, lime juice, coconut milk, or vinegar, producing a 'wet' paste masala that remains edible for limited periods. The exact ingredient combination for a masala varies widely by region and taste preference: for example, masala can be ground or whole spices; mild or strong; bland or sharp; and 'dry' or 'wet'. The combination may vary based on what dish is being prepared: a nuanced, hot flavor or a subtle, aromatic flavor.
The most frequently discussed masala, the North Indian garam masala (pron. gä -'räm m&-'sä -l&) comes from the Hindi word garam literally meaning 'hot'. The ingredient combination and methodology vary locally and by region, though they include many of the 'hot' spices: cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and black cardamom. The garam has evolved to include cooling spices - such as green cardamom, coriander, cumin, Indian bay leaf (Cinnamomum tamala or tejpat) - which act to balance the depth of flavor.
The spices of garam are dry-roasted before use. The cook then laces a dish with the masala just before it is served, as a final flavoring. Garam complements beef and lamb most successfully, while poultry and rice dishes are less commonly ornamented with the mixture (pilaf and biriani are notable exceptions). A cook is wise to use garam masala (and all masalas) sparingly.
Closely related to the garam, kashmiri masala has a lighter essence dominated by the fragrant green cardamom. Found in Kashmir and the far northern regions of India. Most commonly, the kashmiri is used to season foods prepared by the Dum method (baking in a sealed pot).
A tart and salty spice blend whose most prominent tone derives from amchoor - a sharp, lemony seasoning from ground, dried, unripe mangoes. Typical elements of chaat include ground asafetida, mint, ginger, ajowan, cayenne, black salt, black pepper, cumin, coriander, and dried pomegranate seeds. A salad-like preparation called chaat - made with shredded, cooked chicken and mixed fruit - is the most frequent home of this spice mixture. Chaat masala is used whenever the cook seeks a sharp, hot, and tart flavor.
A tart mixture consisting of toasted ground split-peas (dal), coriander, cumin, black peppercorns, and fenugreek (a leguminous annual Asian herb with aromatic seeds) powder, sambar masala is an important component of vegetarian Brahman cooking. The spice mixture is most popular in southern India (see Parsi).
Other Important Masalas
Denoting concepts of 'fresh' and 'birth', tazaa masala is a green spice paste based on fresh coriander leaves, mint, garlic, and ginger. The mixture flavors meat and fish stews, or vegetable dishes for a more potent flavor.
Xacutti masala is the specialty of Goa (region of west India on Malabar Coast) which includes coriander seeds, cumin, black peppercorns, fenugreek, and chili blended with coconut; roasted until black-red in color; fried to give a toasted nutty taste; used to give a dark color to cherries.
Gujerati masala, which tastes powerfully hot, consists of chilis, sesame seeds, fennel seeds, and ajowan seeds. Kala includes pepper, cinnamon, and other black spices. A hot Parsi specialty, Dhansak is a hot mixture used only in Dhansak dishes.
See also: chana masala and Tandoori masala.
Jaffrey, M. Indian Cooking. New York: Barrons, 1995.
Sahni, J. Classic Indian Cooking. New York: William Morrow, 1980.