South vs. North Indian Masala
Garam masala in India is what we non-Indians think of as curry. It is a blend of spices that changes from state to state and kitchen to kitchen. In their all-purpose spice mix, Keralan cooks use fennel seeds and nutmeg with accents of star anise and mace. For non-Indians, the garam masala we are more familiar with comes from Northern India, and it is built on coriander and cumin. Both masalas share cloves, black pepper, and cinnamon, all appreciated for their distinct flavor contributions.
Kerala garam masala flavors dal, meat, and vegetable stews. And most famously, this spice combination infuses a black chickpea masala called kadala curry, and a fragrant chicken stew. Both are redolent with mustard seeds, coconut, and curry leaves.
Roasting Spices is Magical
What a joy to make your own spice blend! The smell of roasting spices is magical, and the flavor bump you get from the little bit of effort to make freshly ground masalas takes delicious dishes to the extraordinary. If you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own Kerala garam masala, the South Indian brands of Eastern, Melam, and Saras are worth hunting for. The more commonly found North Indian garam masala will give you a very good curry, but Kerala garam masala will infuse the essence of South India into your dishes.
Kerala Garam Masala
The following recipe is based on one posted by Neha Mathur on her great blog Whisk Affair. As you become more comfortable cooking Indian food, I encourage you to experiment and develop your own spice masala. Pull a little bit from here and there, then make your own favorite combination of spices. If you haven’t tried my North Indian garam masala, that is a great all-purpose spice blend to try.
See the Notes below before you cook.
Kerala Garam Masala
- 1/4 cup whole fennel seeds
- 1 heaping teaspoon whole cloves ~ 30 cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns ~ 30 peppercorns
- 6 1-inch cinnamon stick ~ Ideally cassia, broken into pieces
- 1 star anise
- 4 teaspoons whole green cardamom pods ~ Or 2 teaspoons cardamom seeds
- 1 piece whole mace ~ Or 1/2 teaspoon ground mace
- 1 whole nutmeg ~ Do not toast
- Gather all your ingredients.
- Using a mortar and pestle or a heavy pan, crush the nutmeg into pieces. With a spice grinder, grind the crushed nutmeg into a powder and set aside.
- In a frying pan over medium-low heat, add all the other spices (EXCEPT the nutmeg and cardamom if your cardamom is not shelled) and toast for 2 to 3 minutes, or until you see the fennel turn a slightly darker shade and the spices become fragrant.
- Remove the pan from the burner and allow the spices to cool.
- If using whole cardamom pods, toast the same way you toasted the rest of the spices. Allow to cool. Using a spice grinder, give it a short whirl or two and most of the shells will open and be separated from the seeds. Or, if using a mortar and pestle, coarsely crush the cardamom pods. Pick out the seeds and discard the shells. Grind the seeds to a powder and add to the rest of the spices.
- Store the Kerala garam masala in an airtight container and it will keep for 1 to 3 months. If you store it in the refrigerator or the freezer the spice blend will be good to use much longer. Smelling the masala gives you a good idea of whether it is still fresh enough to flavor your cooking.
- Be sure to buy good quality spices for Kerala garam masala.
- When toasting the spices, use medium-low heat so as allow the essential oils from the spices to be activated before they get too brown.