The Spice Mix - A Biography of Indian Masalas

The story on why Indian Kitchens have masalas!!

By: Madhulika Dash

Ever wondered what gives spices their characteristic aroma or their unique ability to infuse such wonderful taste to the ingredients they are cooked with? It’s the oil in the spices: the key element that not only lends several spices their distinctive flavour – but also differentiates good spices from the not so good ones. Tata Sampann Masale is one such brand that does not extract the spice oils from whole spices so as to preserve the original flavour In fact, for centuries, royal khansamas used the oil and its notes as the basic principles to create many of the spice mixes, much like how Tata Sampann Masale does it for its own varieties today.

So where did all this begin?

The play of spices began around the start of civilization, when homemakers would often try different combinations to present the same dish differently. This little home trick was further evolved with the birth of ruling dynasty, –free trades and wars, which got us condiments like cardamom, cumin, chillies and saffron.

Result: In medieval India, royal kitchens had variety of herbs and spices to create gourmet dishes with. That freedom along with the need to impress royal palates with something different every time led to the birth of spice mixes

Whimsical as this may sound, the creations of these spice mixes were not a random mix-match of different spices, but a thoughtful amalgamation of herbs and spices based on the principles of Ayurveda and culinary science. Each spice mix, in fact, was a weave and waft of flavours and health benefits. For Example, Tata Sampann Kitchen King is an all-purpose spice and has more of coriander, cumin, chili, turmeric, and black pepper as compared to other spices because of the health benefits these spices provide. Cumin for instance helps cope with flatulence, indigestion, nausea and diarrhea, while the Curcumin in Turmeric is a storehouse of anti-oxidants All masalas in Tata Sampann’s range are made from ingredients bought directly from the best of farms.

Interestingly, this balance of taste and health was yet another principle that hakims and khansamas used to create masalas that changed with season and availability of the spice.

An excellent example of seasonal spice making is the East India’s paanch phoran, which is still made at home because every seasonal change demands a new ratio between fenugreek, mustard seeds and black cumin. Or for that matter the iconic Garam Masala, which has over a dozen iterations across India, depending upon weather and palate.

Homemade masalas became readymade, which demanded mass production of spices as India emerged as one of the largest exporter of some of the finest spices in the world, including clove and saffron. Result: the spices stay aromatic for long.

Garam Masala

What khichdi is to food, Garam Masala is to spice mix in India. Used across the spectrum of Indian cuisine, Garam Masala gets its name from the “warming effect” it has on the body rather than the spiciness it is associated with. Made usually of black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves which give it pungency, but not blistering heat, Garam Masala began its journey in the royal kitchen as a winter spice to keep the body warm – and is considered a close cousin of the nihari masala. According to Maragaret Shaida's The Legendary Cuisine of Persia, “Garam Masala is derived from the Persian garm meaning hot and masaleh meaning ingredients or materials. And may have been inspired by the Persian spice mix called Advieh, a term that means medicine in Arabic. Originally used in royal kitchen, this spice mix reached the common household a little before India was takenover by the Crown.

Today of course, each region of India has its own Garam Masala mix that has been tuned to suit the palate and the weather. Delhi has the basic five ingredients, Rajasthani has 5, adds ajwain, Gujarati mix is made of 9, including coconut, Punjabi has 11, including mace and nutmeg, Maharashtrian ups it with 12, including ginger and sesame, Bengali one has 12 ingredients, including green, black and white pepper and UP adds anardana and saffron.

Kitchen King

Not for nothing is it said that if you have a Kitchen King at home, you can prepare a feast. This all-purpose spice has been one of the best creations of the commercial spice souks. Made of coriander, cumin, chili, turmeric, black pepper it is a refinement of the first curry powder advertisement during mid 1780s in London. It is said that the first iteration of the Kitchen King was created by the Indian Sailors who traveled to the not-so-welcoming England as part of the East India Company Ships. Unable to develop an appetite for the “pale” English food, they took to creating a spice that kept their stomach in check and had the taste of the home cooked meal. The curry powder back home was further enhanced with spices – each treated differently before adding to the mix – to be able to pair with any curry.

Meat Masala

According to ancient ledgers, the trading community around the coastal areas of Kerala developed the original Meat Masala. It was a spice mix that served dual purpose: added aroma and taste and also tenderized the meat. The spice, was first rubbed onto the meat, which was left marinating and then later cooked with coconut milk or roasted with coconut oil basting. The right spice mix was the one that didn’t leave anyone with a burning tongue or stomach. This spice mix reached the Mughals around the time when Jahangir was on the throne, and on the way saw addition of paan ki jhad, khus ke jad, sher ka panja that made meat dishes easy to digest as well.

Chicken Masala & Paneer Masala

According to one version of the British explanation, it was a Pakistani chef by the name Ali Ahmed Aslam, proprietor of the Shish Mahal restaurant in the west end of Glasgow, who invented chicken tikka masala by improvising a sauce made from yogurt, cream and spices. And it is his spice that became the basis of the creation of the Chicken Masala and Paneer Masala back home. Another version of the story is that both the spice mixtures came from the Mughal Court. After all, it was on the behest of Babur that paneer tikka was created, which over the years was turned into gravy with the use of saffron, cashewnut-almond paste and cream. While the origin is debatable, it was one of the most aromatic spice mixtures among the various masalas in the Indian kitchen. This could have been because both chicken and paneer were considered delicate produce and didn’t need the extra fieriness to flavour the food. In fact, most of the spices used in Tata Sampann Masale which is a mix and match of pepper, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, chilies, ajwain, aniseed, caraway, coriander, cumin, dill seed, fennel and fenugreek, is for its aroma and the health properties.

The essence of Indian spices is its oil. It is the medium that ensures a spice mixes’ ability to render the kind of superlative language that makes any dish, memorable. How well is the oil preserved is often the defining line between a spice mix that works – and the powdered mash. After all, when it comes to cooking, there is no match for the intense fresh fragrance and sensory pleasures that a good spice mix weaves on you.