June 28th, 2011

“What is garam masala, dad?” asks my son Aniruddh. “Is it something you buy in a plastic bag from the supermarket and add to all curries?” He looks up at me and waits for my reply.

Now, I first met this man called Robert Das at the Taj Residency in Bangalore when I worked there in 1985 as a commis chef (but he claims that we met at the Savera Hotel in Madras in 1980 where I worked part-time for a week!!). He was there to do a food trial for the post of chef de partie in the Indian kitchen. We had seen many trials before but this one stood out; firstly, because I saw roomali roti being made with a lot of flair and panache and secondly, because I saw at least five different kinds of garam masalas at the same time!

Robert was not only making a tandoori chicken with saffron (not the red-coloured bird that hangs out in dhabas) but there was a lamb dish, a chicken dish, a prawn dish, a biryani, all followed by naans . . . this was the ‘mother’ of all food trials spread over two days. Well, Robert got the job but not the post, he was made a commis chef just like me. We worked well as a team and had a lot of great times in the banquet kitchen catering for functions both small and big. We called each other Thalaivare, meaning leader.

Thalaivare had been cooking all his life, having started in a small kadei (road-side eatery), then he moved to the Savera Hotel in Madras where he honed his skills under an ustaad who taught him the little secrets of Moghlai cooking. This is where Robert also learnt the art of making garam masala. I made Robert my ustaad when we travelled to Australia for the first time in 1988 and started a chain of restaurants for a man who had a lot of money but no understanding of the restaurant trade. Anyway, more about him and those restaurants in my forthcoming blogs!

Today it’s all about GARAM MASALA.

Robert said, “Thalaivare, Moghlai food is all about using the right kind of garam masala for the right kind of protein (meat). It is garam not because of the chilli or the temperature, but because it helps in breaking down the fibres to soften the meat and absorb its flavours; this makes sense as Moghlai food, like Indian food, is all about the flavours and not about making a ‘damn curry’ which uses the same spice mix from a plastic bag like my son thought. Robert would say, “ISKA EK NAAM HAI, AAPKI AUR MERI TARAH” (this dish has a name, a character and an identity just like you and me!). “Yeh KOI CURRY SHURRY nahin hai, Yeh Hamara Khaana Hai, Idhu Namba Saapadu!”. (This is our soul food.) Wow!!!

To make a garam masala for chicken Robert would start with the three Cs (cassia, cardamom and clove) using the same amounts of each and they would be roasted  separately, cooled and set aside. Then he would add mace blades and tez pat (Indian bay leaf) which was again, roasted  separately, cooled and then added to the three Cs. This was garam masala for chicken, commonly used in murgh zaafraani, or chicken kormas.

Garam masala for red meat would have the same three Cs as its base followed by nutmeg and black cardamoms which are commonly used in laal maas, doh piazaa gosht and roganjosh, . . . khade masale ka gosht.

Garam masala for seafood would again use the three Cs but it would contain fennel and ajawain (carom or bishop’s weed), generally added to meen kozhumbu, meen varuval, .. etc.

Garam masala for tandoori chicken would have, of course, the three Cs alongwith  mace, nutmeg, tez pat, some qasoori methi, ginger powder (saunth) which can also be used in tikkas (tikkas is derived from the Sanskrit word Tukra, meaning a small piece).

I say to Aniruddh, “Imagine adding all this spice mix even to a simple grilled chicken and it would have loads of flavour. Who needs the plastic bag of spice?”

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!!

If you want to make your own garam masala click Garam Masala recipe. Smells good!


  1. G M Noohu

    Very informative and well written !!

  2. Sanchaita

    Wow…eye opening ..great post !!! please continue to unravel for us mere mortals the fine art or shall i say science of ‘hamaara khana’

  3. alok Sharma

    Mazaa aa gaya bhaisahib.
    After reading some great receipes by a maestro I also feel like cooking too.
    These words come into my mind
    Yeh to mumkin nahin har koi banaye ek tajmahal
    Par har ek dil mein ek mumtaaz basaa karti hai

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Garam Masalas