You’ll hear or read the word “masala” a lot in Indian recipe videos, recipes, books and in the specialty Indian grocery store. In fact there is usually an aisle or two dedicated to “‘masalas”. But before we learn about the different spices, I need to share the very important history of spices, the spice routes and how spices were the basis of the first Europeans setting foot on Indian shores. So bear with me here! 🙂
In the year 1497 the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama set off on a sea voyage from Lisbon to Calicut, a port on the south-western coast of India and became the first European to reach India by sea. His was a never-done-before route, sailing westward from Lisbon then southward around western Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, then north toward the ports of Mombasa and Malindi in Kenya and then across the Indian ocean to Calicut in India. All this extra work just to avoid sailing across the highly disputed Mediterranean and traversing the dangerous Arabian Peninsula. This new route gave the Portugese unopposed access to the Indian spice routes and boosted the economy of the Portuguese Empire, which was previously based along northern and coastal West Africa. The spices obtained from Southeast Asia were primarily pepper and cinnamon at first, but soon included other products, like ginger, turmeric, nutmeg and mace, all new to Europe. Portugal managed to maintain a commercial monopoly of these commodities for nearly a century. In fact it would be a century later before other European powers such as the Netherlands and England, followed by France and Denmark, were able to challenge Portugal’s monopoly and naval supremacy in the Cape Route. Why would all these European powers be clamoring to control this trade? Clearly, there was something special about these spices, no? Stay with me and you’ll be glad you did!!
So what is “masala” exactly??
A masala usually refers to either a spice or a mix of spices specially blended for a particular dish or flavor. For e.g. you might already know of “Garam Masala” (literally, “heat spice blend”) or “Chana Masala” (spice blend for cooking chickpeas).
Masalas can be a blend of dried spices or fresh spices ground up according to the recipe.
Pre-blended masalas offer an easy and error-proof way to add flavor and that certain kick to your Indian cuisine repertoire, or you can choose to roast, grind and blend your own blends from scratch. I say, why toil when the hard work is already done? And the best part about Indian (dry) masalas is that in our climate here in the US … they last for a long, long time without losing flavor or kick!
These days, as my mother notes incredulously whenever I take her shopping to the Indian store, there are masala blends for literally every single dish you’d ever venture to create in your kitchen. Personally I use a few masala blends and stick to basic spices for every-day cooking.
Below is a list of basic spices I use frequently and recommend you stock in your pantry if you think you are going to cook Indian often. You’ll note that I use both whole and ground spices so I’ve grouped them accordingly.
Dry Whole Spices:
- Mustard Seed
- Cumin Seed
- Black Peppercorn
- Coriander Seed
- Green Cardamom
- Black Cardamom
- Cinnamon Sticks
- Bay Leaf
- Dry Red Chilies (try not to be overwhelmed… there are over 10 types!!!)
Dry Ground Spices and Masalas:
- Cumin Powder
- Coriander Powder
- Red Chili Powder (for heat look for ones labeled “HOT” :))
- Turmeric Powder (for that rich yellow you think of when you think of India)
- Garam Masala (I like the Rajah brand)
- Chana Masala (also called “Chholay” Masala)
- Biryani/Pulao Masala (Basmati rice casserole)
Fresh Spices to stock in your Fridge:
- Indian yellow ginger
- Curry leaf
- Coriander leaf
- Green chilies (if you like heat)