Interpretation of My Mother’s Garam Masala
Words and Photography by Sonny Thakur
“First, we need a lot of cumin seeds.” My mother picks up what looks to be a palmful of cumin. “Then, it’s the same with the coriander and black pepper” as she scoops up the exact amount of spice with her hands. “Little less of two kinds of cardamom, and one [or] two cinnamon sticks. I like this one, it’s from Sri Lanka—and few laurel leaves and cloves! That’s all! Maybe we can put a few star anise, [more] cloves, and what is this called? Nutmeg? Ha, yes.” Toast and finely grind.
This is my mother’s recipe for garam masala, the fingerprint of flavor in Indian cuisine. It seasons our curries, our bajis, our soups, and our stews. The spices in our home are no different from the spices in other Indian homes, but the way my mother handles her spices is what makes our food our own.
Her hands roll out the thin, fine pastry dough for samosas stuffed with spiced peas and potatoes. Experience has taught her just how much water needs to be mixed with wheat flour for pillowy soft (yet still playfully elastic) chapatis. When chilis are powerful enough to sting, she knows exactly how much acid it takes to calm the heat. This intimacy with cooking takes me back to when we first moved into our current home. It was bare because of a logistics error (we booked the movers for the wrong day). We sat together in an empty kitchen with a single gas burner, a basic pantry, and our masala dabba. In less than an hour, my mother fixed a heavy breakfast of samosas and masala chai. I treasure that memory until today and understand why we carry our homes in little tin cans.
My rough conversion recipe below will help you get a head start in finding a spice mix that works for you and your loved ones. I hope it excites you and makes you explore flavors that complement and contrast your cooking.
2 Tbsp Cumin Seeds
2 Tbsp Coriander Seeds
2 Tbsp Black peppercorns (whole)
1 Tbsp Green Cardamom
1 Tbsp Black Cardamom
1-2 pcs Cinnamon Sticks
10-15 pcs Bay Leaves
1 Tbsp Cloves
1 pc Nutmeg (grated)
2 pcs Star Anise
Roast all the ingredients on a dry pan until fragrant.
Let cool, and blend in a spice blender or coffee grinder on the finest setting. (Do not use your daily coffee grinder for this; the smell is impossible to remove)
Note: Always use the freshest possible spices you can find.