The idea that something is always the same – predictable, reliable, guaranteed – is often of less interest to me than that which brings with it the possibility of discovery or maybe even a little excitement. And that includes recipes. I am reminded of this every time I pick up a packet of garam masala – the gentle, earthy spice mix whose heat and pungency will vary according to the whim of the person or company that mixed it. I have bought a blend in Kerala, sold in a twist of blue paper, that was softly heady with cloves and pepper; a slightly less fragrant commercial mix in cellophane; and hotter, more chilli-infused mixtures in re-sealable foil here in Britain.
The essence of garam masala – literally hot mixture – is generally one of warmth rather than heat. Yes, there is a pungency, but rarely more than a hint of chilli. Cardamom, black and white peppercorns, cumin, nutmeg and cinnamon are the most commonly met spices in a commercial pack, but it is not unusual to find star anise, fennel seed, turmeric and mustard, too. Part of the magic lies in the looseness of the recipe. The further north you venture, the hotter it seems to be. I use a commercial mix, even though the idea of a rainy afternoon spent in the company of spice jars and a grinder appeals.
The most common way of using garam masala is to add it as a base note with the onions at the start of cooking. Adding it early on lays down a deep, almost smoky backnote of pepper and cumin. A last-minute addition will leave the more ephemeral notes of cardamom, cinnamon and clove intact.
Stirring a teaspoon or so of garam masala into a pan of cooked, buttered rice on the hob imbues it with a homely, fragrant headnote. I cook white or brown basmati until the water has evaporated, drop in a thick slice of butter and a teaspoon of garam masala and stir over a low heat until the grains are glistening. The smell is as comforting as the flavour.
It is sometimes made as a paste by blending a little coconut milk into the dry spices. I have never found a great deal of difference.
Last week I used dry garam masala in a quick chicken supper and in a yoghurt-based marinade for titchy lamb cutlets. The first recipe used the spice blend to soften and deepen the flavour base I had already made with more potent spices – mustard seed, cumin and chilli; the second as the principal ingredient in a thick marinade that stuck to my lamb cutlets in thick, fragrant clumps, forming a yellow crust under the grill. Neither was served with the knee-jerk accompaniment of rice. Soft, flour-dusted bread and spinach salad with a lemony dressing sat next to both recipes perfectly, if unexpectedly. But then, that was always the point.
LAMB CUTLETS WITH YOGHURT AND MINT
As the spiced yoghurt cooks, it forms a grainy crust on the cutlets. They are at their best served straight from the grill with a generous seasoning of salt flakes, lime and a few torn mint leaves.
cumin seeds 1 tsp
strained yoghurt 200g
lime juice 2 tbsp
groundnut oil 3 tbsp
dried chilli flakes 1 level tsp
garlic 3 cloves
garam masala 2 tsp
ground turmeric ½ tsp
ground coriander 1 tsp
small, thin lamb cutlets 12
mint leaves a small handful, chopped
lime 1, to serve
Briefly toast the cumin seeds in a shallow pan. Put the yoghurt into a mixing bowl and stir in the lime juice, groundnut oil, toasted cumin seeds and chilli flakes. Peel and crush the garlic and stir it into the yoghurt with the garam masala, turmeric and coriander, and salt and black pepper. Add the chops, pushing them down into the yoghurt, cover, and leave overnight in the fridge.
The following day line a grill pan or baking sheet with kitchen foil, place the chops, still with marinade sticking to them, on the foil. Grill for 3 or 4 minutes until the yoghurt has formed a slightly curdled, golden yellow crust. (They will taste all the better if you allow the edges of the fat to burnish slightly.) Turn and cook the other side. Season with salt, a squirt of lime-juice and chopped mint leaves. Serve immediately.
CHICKEN WITH TOMATOES AND GARAM MASALA
chicken thighs 6 large
garlic 4 cloves
ginger a 50g piece
onion 1 small to medium
groundnut or vegetable oil 3 tbsp
brown mustard seeds 1 tsp
cumin seeds 1 tsp
red chillies 2 small hot ones
ground turmeric ½ tsp
ground coriander 1 tbsp, lightly heaped
tomatoes 5 medium-sized (600g)
water 100ml, from the kettle
garam masala 3 tsp
lime juice of one
coriander a small bunch
Season the chicken with salt and ground pepper and set aside. Peel and crush the garlic; peel and grate the ginger and mix together. Peel and finely chop the onion.
Warm the oil in a wok or frying pan, add the chicken and fry on both sides until the skin is pale gold. Lower the heat, cover and leave to cook for 10-12 minutes until it is almost cooked through. Pierce the thickest part with a metal skewer; if the juices are clear, then it is ready. If there is any sign of blood, continue cooking for a few more minutes. Remove the chicken to a plate and discard the oil, but do not wash the pan (there is much flavour stuck to the bottom).
Return the pan to the heat and add the garlic and ginger paste, stirring to prevent burning and to mix in the pan-stickings. Add the mustard and cumin seeds, finely chopped chillies, turmeric and coriander and fry briefly, then add the chopped onion and leave to cook over a moderate heat, with the occasional stir, for 5 minutes or so.
Finely chop the tomatoes, losing as little of their juice as you can. (I find cutting them one at a time, putting each one into the pan immediately it is cut, helps.) Add the chopped tomatoes to the pan, simmering over a moderate heat and stirring from time to time. Leave for 5 minutes before pouring in the water, the garam masala and a little salt. Bring to the boil, stir, and leave to simmer for a couple of minutes before returning the chicken to the pan. Simmer for 5 minutes until the chicken is hot, then add the lime juice and chopped coriander, and serve.