Masala is the essence of Indian cooking, with different types and combinations used. The masala combinations vary with each region.
Indian cooks are famous for improvising the masala by adding their own secret ingredients to a classic masala recipe and personalizing it.
What is Masala?
In Hindi, a spice mixture is called a ‘masala’. A Masala is combination of dried spices and herbs prepared according to traditional recipes and often associated with particular type of dishes.
Masala is a generic term that can be used to refer to any spice blend. A masala may contain 2-3 or may be a dozen or more spices on it.
The masala ingredients depend on many factors like region, components of the dish. Unique spice mixtures are sometimes confined to a single region, town, restaurant or even a household.
Masala is soul of Indian cuisine, recipes and dishes. A well balanced Masala is the reason behind the unique flavors found in Indian cooking.
Where did Masala originate?
The term ‘Masala’ originated in India as ‘Masala’ means spice mixture in Hindi.
However, spice mixtures are not native to India only. Every country, region or area has their own spice blends that they use for cooking.
Like the Chinese 5 spice blend, is say a Chinese masala(Chinese spice blend) which is native to China.
Similarly, there are many Indian masalas like Garam Masala, Chai Masala, Chat Masala which are staples of Indian Cooking.
How is Masala made?
In a well made spice blend or Masala no one spice dominates. The spices in masala are well balanced to compliment each other.
The spice mix can be made dry or mixed with wet ingredients to make a paste. It can consist of ground spices or whole spices that are roasted, grounded and pre mixed to be conveniently ready when cooking.
For making a masala you can follow a classic recipe or create a spice mix of your own based on spices flavor profile. Here is list of common spice mixes and a spice master table listing spices that go well together. It lists classic spice combinations that go well together and also has a master list if you want to create your own.
As you get a better understanding of the spices flavor profile, feel free to change spice blend and proportions as you like. The possibilities and combinations are endless.
We have created a master list of top 51 spices with their names and flavor profile here. You can refer to this list a resource when trying to create your own.
You can also refer this when creating your own blends.
How to use Masalas in Indian cooking?
There are different ways a Masala can be added in Indian cooking:-
- Tempering – Spices are fried in hot oil or ghee. The heat causes the spices to start popping and releasing the flavors in the oil. The food ingredients are then added to the fried spices and get coated with spicy oil. This is a delicious way of making Masala Aloo or potatoes with cumin.
- Before Cooking – The Masala is used as a marinade or spice rub. Food is left in the spice mix over time to absorb all the spice flavors. A famous recipe cooked this way is Chicken Tikka Masala.
- While Cooking – The Masala is added to the dish and cooked along with the other ingredients. Like Sambar Masala is added to the lentils and boiled along with them to let the flavor come out and blend.
- After Cooking- This Masala is generally added towards the end as the final flavoring for the dishes. It does not need to be cooked to release its flavors. The common examples for this are Chat Masala and Garam Masala
Is Masala good for health?
A Masala is the best way to enjoy the healing benefits of the spices in Indian dishes.
Each spice has its own benefits and characteristic flavors. When combined together not only the flavors compliment each other but so do the spice’s health benefits.
We have listed some benefits of the Indian spices here.
For example, new mothers in India is given a spice blend/ masala that is made from roasted ajwain and cumin. This ensure that the breastfed baby does not get gassy.
Similarly, when having cough and cold we would have tea with black pepper, ginger and basil so soothe the throat.
If used with the right complimentary spices the health benefits of a masala are much more and multiplied.
How to store Masala?
Masala or spice blends should be stored away from light and warmth of the kitchen heat. The very best place is the fridge but honestly its impractical and one never seems to have enough space.
Make sure that you store your masalas in air tight containers. Glass ones are the best but metal is fine too.
Always ensure that he seal is tight to keep the volatile flavors and oils in and the moisture out.
Does Masala expire?
Yes, a masala starts to loose its potency and health benefits over time.
You can tell that a ground spice mixture is past its prime if hold it close to you nose – if there is very little aroma then its time to get rid of it.
For whole spices, you can test by rubbing them lightly between your fingers. If the whole spices are still fresh you will will be able to smell the volatile oil released by the spice.
Write the date you first use a spice on the jar. As a thumb rule, go through all your spice jars at least once a year.
Discard ground spices that have been open for more than 6 months, and whole spices that have are more than 3 years old.
Masala vs Garam Masala
Masala is a spice blend whereas Garam Masala is a type of Masala. Garam Masala is the most commonly used Indian Masala or spice blend.
A Masala can be sweet or savory, whereas Garam masala is always savory and added to recipes generally at the end of cooking. The spices used in Garam Masala do not require additional cooking to mellow the flavors.
Masalas commonly used in Indian cooking
Some of the commonly used Masalas in India are-
- Bengali 5 spice mixture – Panch Phoron
- Chat Masala – Used to flavor fast food and snacks
- Chaunk or Tempering – Spices are fried in oil usually after the food preparation
- Garam Masala – Final flavor, sprinkled on top of cooked food
- Sambar Masala – Used in South Indian cooking to flavor lentils, vegetables and soups
- Tandoori Masala – Used for food cooked in Barbeque
- Chai Masala – Used to make spiced Tea
- Tikka Masala – Pieces of chicken are marinated in this spice and yogurt, baked in the tandoor or oven.
Which Masala brand is the best for Indian Cuisine?
We can buy most of the spice blends ready blended but they never have the same flavors as a blend created at home by roasting and grinding the spices.
If you can do that then it should be the first option.
Being a working parent myself, honestly that is not possible always and I end up buying premade masalas myself.
If you choose to buy them premade then you can find MDH Brand or Everest Brand Indian spices.
These are easily available at Indian stores and also online. I have been using these for years now.
If you end up trying either one do let me know which one you liked better.