In Hindi, “garam” means “hot,” and “masala” means “spice” or a “blend of spices.” Used primarily in the cuisines of Northern India and Southern Asia, garam masala serves as the seasoning base for many of the regions’ dishes. It is also used as a quick-fix “flavor adjuster” for a dish that has not achieved the desired overall flavor, and is a “catch-all” seasoning used to imbue dishes with the characteristic flavor of the regions. Garam masalas are also used as a dry-rub to prepare meats for grilling or barbecuing.
There is no one blend of spices for garam masala: Ingredients and proportions differ from region to region, family to family, cook to cook, and dish to dish. But a typical Indian garam masala is comprised of black peppercorns, cardamom, cloves, caraway, bay leaf, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace. The spices are toasted in a hot skillet to release their essential oils, then they are ground in a mortar with a pestle. Some garam masala recipes are moistened with vinegar, water, or even coconut milk, thereby achieving a paste-like consistency, while other recipes are moistened when fresh herbs or ingredients such as mashed garlic and onion are included. But whatever the blend or however it is used, garam masala is a tantalizing, time-honored mélange of world-flavors, and to taste it is to immediately recognize it as one of the culinary luxuries of the world.