There are as many curries in India as there are regions and family recipes. Curry is an anglicized term simply referring to “spicy.” The cultural exchange following the Age of Exploration has given birth to countless versions, some that blend local ingredients with far-off and exotic spices and herbs. Curries are as diverse as are the Indians, Portuguese, and Caribs.
Most curries familiar to westerners are the yellow curries based on turmeric, a delightful orange and distinctly flavorful rhizome in the ginger family. However, garam masala, rooted mostly in the north of India, is a wonderfully aromatic and slightly spicy curry based on cardamom, coriander, and black peppercorns. It is wonderful with meats. Some dishes combine garam masala with turmeric for flavorful and aromatic dishes that are also a feast for the eyes. Although the peppercorns in garam masala lend a wonderful warmth, most cooks add heat by way of various amounts of capsicum peppers. One can get the full-bodied, aromatic, and herbaceous flavor from the garam masala and adjust the spiciness level to your taste by adding cayenne or chilies to your dish. Some garam masala variation offer complex but harmonious flavors with ingredients such as cinnamon, cloves, and bay, such as the fantastic recipe below.
Garam masala reaches its full flavor when fresh, whole spices are roasted slightly before grinding to a powder. This takes some effort, especially the grinding to a powder. I use a mortar and pestle to break open the cardamom pods and remove most of the husks (not entirely necessary but it reduces bitterness), and crack the roasted bay leaves before running through a dedicated burr-style coffee grinder to reach a fine powder. One can also simply use a good mortar and pestle for a small batch.
Make the effort. Your house will be filled with hypnotizing aromas and your meat dishes will never be the same.
4 green cardamom pods
4 black cardamom pods
4 bay leaves
4 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Combine all ingredients in a thick-bottomed skillet.
Toast over medium-low heat. Stir frequently until fragrant and starting to brown.
When cool, break and peel cardamom pods, crack bay leaves (a mortar & pestle is helpful)
Grind all ingredients to a powder.
Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry cupboard.