What is the difference between curry powder and garam masala? If I had grown up cooking and eating Indian food, this would probably be a silly question. However, I’ve only come to enjoy Indian food as an adult. So I have to learn as I begin to cook Indian recipes.
When I grew up in the mid-Atlantic US in the 1960s, groceries had curry powder in the spice aisle. No designation as to whether it was hot or mild. Just plain old curry powder. And there was no garam masala anywhere in sight.
At the time, I didn’t realize that our curry-but-no-garam-masala existence was a remnant of colonialism. Since then, I’ve learned that curry powder was a British invention. By contrast, garam masala is a true Indian spice mixture.
About five years ago, I discovered there was a difference between curry powder and garam masala when I stir-fried beef with curry sauce. However, I can’t remember now why or how I discovered it.
The question dropped off my culinary radar screen until recently when I went searching in my spice drawer for curry powder. I came upon (too many) containers of another spice blend, garam masala, and wondered again about the difference between them.
I did online research and found several tidbits that provided a good start on answering my question. But it wasn’t until I checked out my well-worn copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s first cookbook, the 1973 classic, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, that I really got inspired to write this post.
An Invitation to Indian Cooking has always been one of my favorite sources for Indian recipes. However, I hadn’t read the introduction – until now.
It turns out that’s where I found Jaffrey’s explanation of how to achieve true Indian flavors.
Let me start negatively by saying that what you don’t need is curry powder. …
To me the word ‘curry’ is as degrading to India’s great cuisine as the term ‘chop suey’ was to China’s. …
If ‘curry’ is an oversimplified name for an ancient cuisine, then ‘curry powder’ attempts to oversimplify (and destroy) the cuisine itself. Curry powders are standard blends of several spices, including cumin, coriander, fenugreek, red peppers, and turmeric – standard blends which Indians themselves never use.
… The point is that no Indian ever uses curry powder in his cooking. Nor do we mix our own, because if we did we would end up with our own blend of collective spices. Cooking again and again with the same blend of spices would make all dishes taste alike. It would be the same as taking a tablespoon each of dried thyme, basil, rosemary, tarragon, bay leaves, and allspice, putting them in a jar, shaking the jar, labeling it ‘French spices’ and then using a portion of this mixture for every French dish one made, from soup to salad. Also, since ‘curry powder’ is a blend of ground spices, it tends to get stale very quickly and lose its flavor. So one ends up with something that has the negative aspects of being standardized and somewhat rancid at the same time.
OK, so curry powder isn’t authentically Indian. But I’ve seen it in Southeast Asian recipes. For example, my wok-master, Grace Young, calls for curry powder in three recipes in Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge. Another of my favorite Southeast Asian cookbook authors, Patricia Tanumihardja, not only uses it in recipes in The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook, she also describes it in the section of the book entitled “An Asian Pantry, a Glossary of Ingredients” and refers to Madras (Indian) curry powder as well as the Vietnamese variety.
What does Madhur Jaffrey have to say about those uses of commercially prepared curry powder?
Back to “An Invitation to Indian Cooking”, we pick up where we left off.
And it isn’t just Britishers and Americans who are misguided. The Chinese, who insist on the freshest herbs and vegetables for all their own food, use some of the stalest curried powder for the curried dumplings they serve in Hong Kong’s best tea rooms. The Japanese, who are probably the world’s greatest culinary aesthetes, don’t hesitate to serve a greenish-yellow glutinous mess over their rice and label it ‘curry,’ and the Frenchman, who insists on a perfect velouté, also eats the most ghastly ‘shrimp Indienne’ in a curry-tinted cream sauce.
Don’t forget that Jaffrey wrote those harsh words in 1973. Also, she noted that things were changing even then, in that other cultures, especially Americans, were beginning to desire authenticity.
What’s the Difference Between Curry Powder and Garam Masala?
- So we already know that curry powder is a British invention and garam masala is traditionally Indian. But there is a curry powder that at least some Indians do not look down upon – Madras curry.
- Michelle Peters-Jones’ family recipe for Madras curry uses nine different spices. It includes coriander, cumin, and fennel seeds, cassia bark (a cousin of cinnamon sticks), green cardamom pods, black peppercorns, dried mild Kashmiri chilies, curry leaves and turmeric. Garam masala recipes (see below) also use quite a few spices. However, they do not typically include turmeric or curry leaves.
- Most recipes that call for curry powder add it at an early stage of cooking. By contrast, Indian cooks typcially add garam masala at the end. An exception is Nik Sharma’s Aloo Gobi Mater or Potatoes, Cauliflower and Peas. Nik adds the garam masala at an early stage, even before adding the main vegetables (potatoes, cauliflower, and peas) to the dish.
What is Garam Masala?
- Garam masala is a spice blend that translates as “hot spices.” (Not spicy hot, but hot as in having a warming effect on your body.)
- There is no single recipe for garam masala nor even consensus as to what spices to include.
- In An Invitation to Indian Cooking, Jaffrey’s garam masala includes cardamom pods, black peppercorns, cumin and coriander seeds, cinnamon sticks, and cloves. She grinds them together.
- Spice expert Lior Lev Sercarz’s recipe in The Spice Companion uses black peppercorns, ground ginger, mace and cloves, toasted black cardamom pods and dried bay leaves.
- The version on Indiapile uses cumin and coriander seeds, black seeds from green cardamom pods, black peppercorns, cloves, dried red chiles, a cinnamon stick, bay leaves, star anise, fennel seeds and nutmeg.
- Monica Bhide says her favorite is from Julie Sahni’s book Indian Regional Classics: Fast, Fresh, and Healthy Home Cooking. It calls for cumin, coriander, and cardamom seeds, black peppercorns, a cinnamon stick, grated nutmeg and (optional) ground saffron.
- Some recipes call for dry roasting the whole spices before grinding them, while others do not.
- I have seen recipes that allow for significant variation in the amounts of each ingredient depending on taste.
While curry powder (except for Madras curry powder) isn’t truly Indian in origin, it is still an ingredient I will use. Of course, as with all spices, a spice blend such as curry powder should be fresh. (It remains an ingredient in my recipes for Apple & Caramelized Onion Chutney and Healthy Yogurt Curry Dip.)
But at least now I know what it is – and what it isn’t. And when I call for curry powder I won’t designate the recipe as Indian.