Indian cooking may be the worlds most complex. This is not because of the basic ingredients. The vegetables, rice, pulses, and meat and fish that are in many recipes are common to much of the world. However the ravishing use of spices and herbs has made Indian cooking one of the most difficult for the unwary westerner to try at home. Freshness is key. Packaged curries and prepared spice mixtures make most sub-continent cooking fall flat.
While most of us cant expect to keep Amchoor (dried mango powder), mustard seed oil, or fresh tumeric root around the house for the times we want to cook an authentic Indian dish; it is worth making sure that the basics for a good masalaor spice mixtureare on hand. One of the easiest is garam masala.
Garam comes from the Persian word for hot. Hot, in the masala sense, doesnt always mean fiery. It is more akin to zesty. Some of the hot spices used in garam masala are cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and black cardamom. Cool spices might include coriander and cumin. In Northern Indian cooking, the masalas are usually dried and ground. In the south they are often made into a paste. (For such culinary arcana, I am indebted to Alan Davidsons marvellous new publicationThe Oxford Companion to Food).
There is no one recipe for Garam Masala. The spice mixture will vary according to the recipe and the chefs tastes. A simple version might be a teaspoon each of cardamom, cumin, black peppercorns, cloves, allspice and a little cinnamon bark. Grind this as finely as possible and keep it stored tightly out of the light. Use this in rice and vegetable dishes.
Heres an easy recipe. Peel a couple of potatoes, cut them into cubes and parboil them so they are partially cooked. Saute a chopped onion in a little butter until it is soft and golden. Add a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and a teaspoon each of powdered tumeric and the garam masala. Stir and cook this over low heat to warmbut not burnthe spice mixture. Add the drained potatoes and a cup of frozen, thawed spinach. Mix well. Cover and cook everything together for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.