Garam masala (Recipe: mint chutney)
What happens when a good-for-nothing handsome hunk like Mac finds himself in possession of an empty flat and access to three gorgeous air hostesses, Priti, Sweety and Puja? I have no idea, but you will, if you settle in with Garam Masala — a 2005, three-hour, Bollywood movie extravaganza! Indian movies that combine song and dance, love triangles, drama, comedy, and daredevil thrills are called masala movies, because, like masalas — spice blends — they are a mixture of many things.
Visit one hundred kitchens in India, and you'll find one hundred different versions of garam masala, the spice mixture at the heart of northern Indian and Pakistani cooking.
One of the few spice blends used in Indian cooking, garam masala is pungent but not spicy-hot, and it's usually added at the end of the cooking to bring an extra burst of flavor to the dish. Most often made of whole spices that are toasted and then used whole or ground, garam masala varies from one cook to the next, and from one spice seller to another.
Currently I have Penzeys' version of garam masala on my spice rack. Penzeys uses a "recipe" brought to them by a customer who grew up in the Punjab; it contains coriander, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, kalonji, caraway, cloves, ginger and nutmeg. Garam masala can have as few as three ingredients, or as many as a dozen or more.
In every kitchen, the masala dabba, a spice box with two lids to keep the contents fresh, holds the key to the family's culinary traditions and memories — and it holds little containers for seven ingredients that combine and recombine to make the masalas and curries that are a cook's trademark.
By the way, a masala dabba can hold any combination of spices in your own kitchen, even if you don't do a lot of Indian cooking. Mine occasionally has Latin flavors — cumin, chili powder, pepper, oregano, etc. — or baking spices like cinnamon, ground cloves, and cardamom.
And if you're settling in for that three-hour movie, you could fill the little containers in the masala dabba with M&Ms, peanuts, or jelly beans.
In a wonderful store in Assonet, Massachusetts, that specializes in rare and used cookbooks, I found a book humbly titled Indian Cooking, by Savitri Chowdhary, published in London in 1954. There's an abundance of mint in my herb garden at the moment, so this recipe caught my eye as I paged through the book. The author's charming measuring system leaves much to the cook's discretion. Serves 5.
6 medium-sized spring onions
1 teacupful ready-to-use mint
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
2 medium-sized minced green chiles or 1/2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp garam masala
1 Tbsp dried pomegranate seeds (anardana)
1 dessertspoonful ground mango or 1 Tbsp lemon juice
Wash the onions, throwing away only the tough green leaves. Wash the mint under running water, and mince these two things and the fresh green chiles together. Put them in a mortar, add salt, sugar and garam masala and crush for several minutes with the pestle. Take out and place aside on a plate. Sort and rinse the dried pomegranate seeds, and crush them in the mortar separately, then put the half-prepared chutney back in the mortar and crush and mix thoroughly. Lastly add the ground mango or lemon juice and mix once again. Transfer to a glass dish and serve.
Mint chutney will keep for a day or two, but is tastier when freshly made.