Spice of Life, a gourmet’s delight

From a Spice shop in Goa, India
A variety of spices and herbs are used by humans to make an otherwise plain meal delightful. The use of the right spice makes for a gourmet’s delight. Of all the regions in the world, South Asian cuisine makes most uses of spices. There are several reasons for this, the foremost being that the climatic zones of South Asia are most suitable for the growth of a variety of spices. This region has had a long civilization history stretching back more than five thousand years, much of it prosperous times, although recent centuries have seen much poverty too. With Buddha, some two and half thousand years ago, came the concept of vegetarianism and with that also arose the necessity of making many, otherwise bland, vegetarian dishes delicious with the use of spices. Moreover most of the spices used have health benefits too. Perhaps that is the reason the Lord gave them such a nice taste. Europeans came to India in search of spices and Columbus discovered America because his ship reached another destination instead.

The British spent over two hundred years in India and gradually acquired the taste of spiced South Asian dishes. When the British left India and returned to England they missed some of these. In India they had the use of a host of professional cooks and chefs at affordable wages and therefore few British ladies bothered to cook Indian dishes and did not learn the proper use of spices. Back in England a spice mix called curry powder became popular because it was easy to use. I too have lived in the West for many years and tried the mix. Unfortunately the resulting food was not even passable. It is because commercial interests dictate the use of the cheapest (as also the most phooey) spices in the mix so that even the aroma is unpleasant. Moreover there is not just one spice mix but hundreds of different ones required for the different dishes cooked in an average Indian Kitchen each prepared by adding individual spices to the dish being prepared. Spices have also been a poor man’s aid. Cooking some of the cheaper ones with a bit of vegetables, a bit of cooking oil and water produces a broth that can be consumed with unleavened bread to save a person from hunger and is a frequent practice in poverty stricken homes of India.

However, it is not that ready made spice mixes are not used in Indian kitchens. A highly popular one is called Garam Masala (The hot spice mix) is a must for the best North Indian dishes. Its precise composition however varies form region to region and home to home. My mother by the name of Nando came from a highly cultured family of North West India and she brought with her the mixing formula of her own home. The same formula is now used in my home too and to this, based on my International travel and experience, I have added another spice mix in the kitchen that I call Hara Masala (green spice mix). Very many guests at my mother’s home as well as my own have remarked that the food tastes so much better than anywhere else. A major contributing cause is the use of these two spice mixes that along with two other spices – Turmeric and red Chilies, suffice for most dishes cooked regularly in our kitchen while other specific spices are required only occasionally. Therefore the idea came to me that I must share the formula for these two spice-mixes with the readers of this blog so that they too may produce more joy in their kitchens

Garam Masala:

Take a cup each of whole black pepper corns and whole cumin seeds. To this add a quarter cup each of cinnamon sticks, cloves and the large black cardamom pods. Spread out these spices in a tray and leave them by a sunny window to sun and air for about eight hours. Then after sunset grind them in the home blender to a fine powder. Immediately transfer and pack in a tight container while removing some to a smaller one for daily use. Frequent exposure to air would make the mix lose its aroma therefore this two-step packing is a necessity.

Hara Masala

This spice mix is also a mix of five spices. Take a cup of coriander seeds, half a cup of bay leaves and a tablespoon full of basil leaves, fennel seeds and the small green cardamom pods. Sun, grind and pack them just as for the Garam Masala.

Replacing Curry Powder

Now you can throw away the curry powder, if any in your kitchen. Instead for a dish that calls for it, use a tea spoon each of the Garam Masala, Hara Masala and half a teaspoon of turmeric powder instead. You may try variations by leaving out one of the three spice mixes for different dishes. Garam Masala has cumin in it that does not taste good without frying. Whole cumin seeds are fried in a bit of hot oil for a few minutes (until they are dark brown but not black) before including in a dish along with the oil used. However when Garam Masala is used, frying it in very hot oil for just half a minute suffices. No more than a level teaspoon each is required for a dish that serves four. You may use a pinch of hot chili powder in a dish according to taste but a lot of chili is not used in good Indian homes, while a lot may be used in a poor man's home because the other spices are expensive. The two spice mixes, Garam Masala and Hara Masala would brighten up most any western recipe of meat or vegetables as well as sauces for pasta.

Enjoy, this post has come a bit late for the Christmas dinner but not too late for New Year. Wishing you a very happy new year.

For a generic recipe of exotic North India curry dishes see


Photo from Wikipedia:

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