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The ‘Magic’ Spice: What Is Garam Masala and How Can You Use It?

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Garam Masala

Story at-a-glance -

  • Garam masala is a blend of spices mixed into one. Most traditional garam masala recipes include spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, cumin, nutmeg and cardamom
  • While its name translates to “hot spice mixture,” garam masala isn’t always spicy. The “hot” component of this blend may refer to the fact that the individual spices composing it are considered “warming” to the body, meaning they all have the ability to raise body metabolism
  • Many of the spices used in garam masala offer health benefits. For example, black pepper may help with inflammation and digestive issues, while cinnamon and cardamom may be beneficial for diabetics

To some, Indian cuisine is an adventure — the dishes from this country have a vibrant and unique quality about them, owing to their bright colors and intense flavors. This is mainly due to the Indian love of spices, and one prominent staple is garam masala.

Sometimes dubbed “the magic spice,” garam masala is a blend of spices mixed into one. There is no one way to prepare this spice; it varies from region to region, and from one household to another.1 This article will delve deeper into garam masala, including what it’s made of, how to use it properly and what dishes you can add it to.

What Is Garam Masala?

“Garam masala” hails from two Indian words: “garam,” which means “hot,” and “masala,” which translates to “spice mixture.”2 It’s believed to have originated from northern India, which is prone to cold temperatures,3 and is often added to curries and biryani.4

Surprisingly, garam masala isn’t completely spicy.5 Its flavor is warm and aromatic rather than fiery hot, like curry.6 In an editorial published in The Economic Times, the author notes that the “hot” component of this spice blend may refer to fact that the spices composing it are all considered “heating” to the body, meaning they all have the ability to raise body metabolism.7

As mentioned above, this blend can be made in various ways. The Spruce Eats notes that some traditional garam masala ingredients include:

Other variations make use of spices like garlic, ginger, fennel seeds, bay leaves, fenugreek, tamarind, mustard seeds, star anise, mace and Malabar leaves.8 Garam masala is either used on its own or added to dishes along with other spices. Recipes that are heavy or oily often make use of it.

While most dishes call for prepared garam masala, which incorporates spices that are preroasted and ground, some call for freshly made garam masala. For this particular mix, the spices are not roasted and are added to the recipe in whole form or ground.9

Garam masala is often compared to curry powder. The word “curry” is believed to be an 18th century British invention, and the curry most Westerners know today is referred to simply as “masala” in India — their day-to-day spice blend.10 There are plenty of theories on the origin of this word, one of which is that the British took it from the Tamil word “kari,” which means “sauce” or “gravy.”11 

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4 Spices in Garam Masala and Their Health Benefits

I’ve mentioned before that flavoring your food with herbs and spices is a simple way of upgrading the nutrient density of your meals without adding any calories. You’ll be pleased to know that many of the spices used in garam masala offer their own set of health benefits. Here are some examples:

1. Black pepper — Known for its anti-inflammatory and gastroprotective properties, black pepper contains an active compound called piperine.12 For people aiming to reduce their waist size and body fat, as well as to maintain optimal cholesterol levels, piperine may be beneficial due to its ability to inhibit the formation of new fat cells.13  

2. Cinnamon — This spice, loved for its delicious flavor and fragrance, may help diabetics reduce blood glucose levels and improve insulin resistance. A 2003 study published in Diabetes Care journal stated that:14

“[I]ntake of 1, 3, or 6 g of cinnamon per day reduces serum glucose, triglyceride, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol in people with Type 2 diabetes … [T]he inclusion of cinnamon in the diet of people with Type 2 diabetes will reduce risk factors associated with diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.”

3. Cloves — A 2008 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Foods revealed that there’s a direct correlation between the antioxidant content of certain extracts from spices and herbs and their ability to block advanced glycation end (AGE) products, which in turn helps minimize the risk of heart disease and inhibit premature aging. Of all the 24 herbs and spices tested, cloves ranked the most potent in producing these effects.15

4. Cardamom — Studies show that cardamom, which is related to cinnamon, may help optimize your insulin and cholesterol levels, and help lower blood glucose levels.16 It also boasts of antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, which helps promote better metabolic function and soothe your gastrointestinal system.17

Garam Masala Uses

In India, the way garam masala is used depends on the region. In northern India, it’s used in powder form, while in southern areas, it’s mixed with water, vinegar or coconut milk to form a paste. Garam masala blends from southern regions also tend to be spicier than those from northern areas, mainly because of the hotter climate and increased exposure to sunlight, leading to higher levels of capsaicin to develop in chiles.18

According to the Kitchn, garam masala’s warm flavor blends well with various meat, poultry and vegetable dishes. It also works great in soups, curries and lentils. One tip when using garam masala is to add it at the end of the cooking, when the heat is already turned off.19 Less exposure to heat helps preserve the flavor of the spices.

How to Make Garam Masala Spice: Recipes You Can Make at Home

Spices used for traditional garam masala are ground fresh daily to ensure that their rich flavors and aromas stay intact.20 Remember to only use fresh whole spices because the flavor they provide are far superior to pre-ground spices.21

Remember, there’s no single way to make this spice blend, as each recipe and household makes use of different spices and in varying ratios. Here are a couple of homemade garam masala recipes you can follow:

Garam Masala Powder

By "Ayurvedic Healing Cuisine" 22

Ingredients:

Seeds of 1 black cardamom pod

8 whole black peppercorns

4 cloves

1 cinnamon stick, 2 inches long and broken into pieces

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

Procedure:

1. Clean and prepare the spices in a bowl.

2. Dry-roast half the spices in a frying pan over low heat, until the spices are lightly browned and fragrant.

3. Mix the roasted and raw spices together. Grind in a mortar and pestle or use an electric grinder. Store in a glass jar.

Serving size: 2 1/2 tablespoons

Garam Masala Powder

By Serious Eats23

Ingredients:

6 to 8 green cardamom pods, green husks removed and discarded

2 tablespoons whole coriander seed

1 tablespoon whole cumin seed

1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns

1 teaspoon whole cloves

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 3-inch stick of cinnamon

1 star anise pod

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg or mace

Procedure:

1. Put the cardamom, cumin, coriander, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, fennel and anise in a medium skillet, over medium heat. Cook, tossing frequently, until aromatic and toasted-smelling, about two minutes.

2. Transfer to a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, and then add ground nutmeg. Grind into a fine powder.

Serving size: About 1/3 cup

Garam Masala Spice Recipes You Can Try

Once your garam masala spice mix is ready, you can now start cooking. Here are a couple of recipes you can make at home.

Chicken Tikka Masala With Cauliflower Rice

Ingredients:

1 free-range chicken breast (skin on, about 3 ounces)

1/2 tablespoon garam masala

1 tablespoon coconut oil

4 tablespoons coconut cream

2 tablespoons heavy cream

1 teaspoon ginger grated

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 clove garlic minced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon paprika

Fresh cilantro, to garnish

1 teaspoon salt

Procedure:

1. Dice the chicken breasts into bite-sized chunks. Over medium heat, pan fry in heated coconut oil for approximately five minutes.

2. Combine the heavy cream and coconut cream in the pan and let simmer another two minutes.

3. Add the garlic cloves, garlic powder, ginger, garam masala and tomato paste, and then stir the chicken in.

4. Season with paprika and salt, and mix properly to fully combine. Let simmer for five more minutes. Take away from heat.

5. Serve over the cauliflower rice and some chopped cilantro on top. Enjoy.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Servings: 2

(Recipe adapted from KetoVale.com24)

Low-Carb Lamb Masala With Okra

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon coconut oil

1 tablespoon garam masala

1/4 cup chopped onion

2 lamb shoulders, bones removed, trimmed and chopped

8 ounces tomato sauce

1 teaspoon garlic paste

1 teaspoon ginger paste

8 fluid ounces of water

1/2 cup chopped okra

2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt

Salt to taste

Fresh chopped cilantro to garnish

Procedure:

1. In a large pan, heat the coconut oil and add the garam masala, cooking for two to three minutes until fragrant.

2. Add lamb and onion, and allow to cook until the onion has softened and the meat has browned, around two to three minutes.

3. Add tomato sauce, garlic, water and ginger, and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.

4. Cover and cook for 35 to 40 minutes until the sauce has reduced and thickened.

5. Add yogurt and okra. Allow to cook for four to five minutes, until the okra is tender.

6. Check the seasoning and add more salt if needed. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve.

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour

Servings: 2

(Recipe adapted from Sleep Away from the Carbs25)

How to Store Garam Masala

Remember that the aromatic qualities of spices come from the essential oils they contain. Unfortunately, these oils lose their flavor easily and are highly volatile. If you’ve made your own garam masala at home, “Ayurvedic Healing Cuisine” suggests storing the leftover spice in a glass jar, so it can be used for recipes as needed.26

But while it may be tempting to make large batches, it’s best to make this spice in small amounts and consume within a week, to retain the freshness and fully appreciate the flavors of the spices. NDTV Food lists some other helpful tips for storing garam masala — and other spices — to prolong their shelf life:27

  • Place it in an airtight jar — Moisture in the air can lead to the garam masala losing its aroma, flavor and color.
  • Do not store it near heat or under bright light — You may be tempted to have your garam masala and other spices beside the stove so they’re within arm’s length while you’re cooking, but this will cause them to lose their flavor. It’s best to keep them away from heat and light sources, such as sunlight. Instead, put them in a closed cupboard. A cool and damp area is the best place for herbs and spices.
  • Do not place it in the refrigerator — Garam masala may be fine in the fridge for a day or two, but once it builds up moisture, it will lose its aroma.
  • Keep it away from water — Even a few drops can affect the flavor and aroma of your masala. Always use a clean, dry spoon whenever scooping out the spice.

Garam Masala Substitutes

Garam masala isn’t a mix that you can make with just a few ingredients — you’ll need to have several whole spices on hand to make sure you get an authentic blend that will complement your meals. However, if you’re in a pinch and cannot make it, Gourmet Sleuth recommends combining one part cumin powder with one-fourth part allspice powder, which will mimic the flavor of this spice blend.28   

I still recommend making your own garam masala from scratch, using whole spices, instead of buying bottled powdered spices. Not only are you able to tweak the flavor according to your preferences, but you can also be certain that you’re only using wholesome ingredients. It may require some time and effort, but the resulting flavor and aroma from your dishes will be worth it!

Garam Masala Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is in garam masala?

A. Garam masala contains a number of spices. The variations are endless, and vary from region to region, and from one household to another. Some common spices used for traditional garam masala include black pepper, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, nutmeg, cumin and cardamom. Other spices that may be used include star anise, fennel seeds, ginger and garlic.

Q: Where can I buy garam masala?

A. There are garam masala powders sold in grocery stores and online shops, but if you prefer a healthier and more authentic version, I recommend buying whole spices and making your own blend at home.

Q: Is garam masala spicy?

A.  Garam masala is not necessarily spicy, but rather warm and aromatic. Although “garam” translates to “hot,” this term may actually be referring to the “warming” or metabolism-boosting properties of the spices, and not the flavor.

Q: Can you make your own garam masala?

A. Yes, you can. There are numerous recipes you can try. Feel free to experiment with the ratios and the spices variations so you can find a blend that suits your taste.

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