Kate Heyhoe

Kate's Global Kitchen


The Indian Kitchen: Masalas

by Kate Heyhoe


There is, as I wrote in the Curry article, no such thing as "curry powder" in the true Indian household. What they do have are masalas, spice blends, which they make from scratch and are used to create the dishes known as curries.

The process is complex: whole spices are toasted and ground then mixed in varied and specific proportions to create these masalas. When making curry dishes, an Indian cook will create a masala and then add it to the meat, rice, pulse or vegetable being cooked along with other flavorings that may include ginger, onion, chiles, cilantro, garlic and other "wet" ingredients. The whole foundation of Indian cooking is based on the use of spices, whole and ground, toasted or raw, added together or separately and mastering their use is a true culinary art.

Indian woman

Certain classic masalas are cooked with so frequently they are often made in batches then added as needed. But spices lose flavor quickly, so even if made in advance, these masalas will still be fixed in small enough batches to be used within a week or so or as long as they maintain their fresh flavor. These masalas will vary from region to region, based on the availability of spices, the climate and the predominant cooking methods.

Garam masala means "hot spice" is exactly the opposite of what it sounds like. It is used in the colder northern areas and has no chiles in it, as these cause perspiration which in effect chills the body. Instead, it contains warming spices like cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, cloves and black pepper—spices that would be at home in any good winter stew. Goda masala, made in the tropical area near Bombay, uses coconut, sesame seeds, and white poppy seeds in its blend, among other ingredients. And in South India, Sambar masala features red chiles and mustard seeds in its spicy, perspiration-causing mix.

Garam Masala

  • 3 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
  • 1 tablespoon cardamom seeds
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons cloves
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1. In a heavy, dry skillet, toast separately the coriander, caraway, cardamom and cumin seeds, each for a few seconds, until aromatic. It is best to toast each ingredient separately, as they release their oils at different cooking times.

2. Mix all ingredients together and grind in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Strain through a fine sieve to remove large pieces. Store in an airtight container. If desired, freeze the mixture to retain freshness.

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This page originally published as a Global Gourmet Today column in 1998.

Copyright © 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.

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This page modified January 2007

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