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Gateway to India

If you’ve ever left an Indian restaurant thinking, “I could probably cook that,” you might have gone home to look up the recipe for the dish you loved so much, only to be stopped cold by garam masala on the ingredient list.

Found in few conventional supermarkets, this trademark Indian blend of half a dozen or so fragrant spices transforms the garlic, onions and tomatoes you already have into a healthy, aromatic curry in a lot less time than you might think. (Whole ground spices also have numerous health and antioxidant benefits.) With this simple curry base, you pass through the mysterious gates of Indian cuisine. Chicken, shrimp, blanched vegetables or firm white fish, such as sea bass or cod, happily absorb the spices’ flavors and enrich the dish with their own.

Garam masala spices.Masala is a broad term meaning “spice blend.” Indians sprinkle masala on freshly shelled roasted peanuts and dust it on corn on the cob. (“Magic Masala” is a popular flavor of Lay’s potato chips in South Asia.) It has become a ubiquitous term for all things vibrant and spicy — a sort of joie de vivre — and the scent of it hangs in the air mingled with thousands of other notes in India. It’s a different compound in every home for every dish, ranging from two to dozens of spices, pounded to a powder by hand. The perfume that rises from the mortar is incomparable, as whole spices release powerful essential oils when broken down. For this reason, Indian food boasts a flavor profile impossible to replicate without the participation of the following contributors:

Whole black peppercorns (not so hard)
Cumin (can be found in every supermarket)
Cinnamon (easy to track down)
Cloves (see above comment)
Coriander seeds
Cardamom seeds

But don’t give up so easily — I’ve yet to live in a city anywhere in the world that doesn’t have an Indian or Asian grocer, and nearly all of them carry all these spices. Once you’ve procured all six, you’ll need an electric coffee grinder (yes, making your own garam masala is as easy as grinding coffee beans), preferably one that you’ll just use for spices or your coffee may taste like curry and vice versa. If you have just one, make sure you wash it thoroughly before you grind coffee again. In one batch, add the following:

1 level tablespoon black peppercorns
2 tablespoons cumin
2 sticks cinnamon, broken into pieces
1 level tablespoon cloves
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds

Toast spices in a hot, dry pan for 2-3 minutes to release their oils, shaking frequently, then grind in pulses of 5-7 seconds until the blend becomes a fine powder — the woody texture of whole spices won’t break down even with cooking, so check for any chunks, especially of cinnamon, before you use the masala.

Empty into an airtight jar — Mason jars work very well — and store in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months.

Classic Indian Chicken Curry

Serves 4

1 large white onion, finely chopped
1 3-inch piece of ginger root, peeled and minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup chopped cilantro leaves and stems
2 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped, juice reserved
4-6 chicken thighs, legs and/or wings
3 tablespoons vegetable oil or ghee
4 tablespoons garam masala
1 bay leaf
1 serrano chili pepper (optional)
Salt to taste


  1. Brown chicken pieces on all sides in a large pot, then set aside.
  2. Add oil, onions, garlic, ginger, chili and bay leaf to pot over medium heat and cook until translucent, about 7 minutes
  3. Add 4 tablespoons of garam masala, stir to coat all vegetables
  4. Add chicken, tomatoes and reserved juice, bring to a boil, then simmer covered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in chopped cilantro just before serving.

Serve over steamed basmati or jasmine rice with a lime wedge and plain, whole milk yogurt on the side.

Here are some variations:

Shrimp curry: Omit first step, add peeled raw shrimp when Step 4 is nearly complete and simmer covered for 5 minutes before serving.Egg Curry: Same, add peeled, halved hard boiled eggs instead of shrimp.

Fish curry: Same, but cook for 10-12 minutes, checking for doneness.

Vegetable curry: Add blanched green beans, cauliflower, squash, mushrooms, peas or eggplant instead of chicken in step 4.

Jess Kapadia is a food writer in New York.

Chicken curry served with rice and garnished with cilantro leaves. Photo by Garuti. Spices photo by Fima Macheret.