The Meaning of Masala

There are over 150 different languages spoken in India.
Whether it’s one of the 422 million Hindi speakers or one of the 38,000 Lepcha speakers, it seems like everyone has a different word referring to the same thing.

It’s not just the language that changes every time you get off a train, but the food as well. If you’re looking for something bread-like to accompany a curry then you could go for a naan, roti, chapatti, dosa, puri, appam, phulka…you get the point.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Like most Brits, I knew that a korma was generally quite creamy and yellow. I knew that the main purpose of a Vindaloo was for blowing the heads off boozed-up stag parties and I knew that Baltis were steeped in national pride having never set foot in India, but being invented in Birmingham. But that was about it.

The Pataks and Sharwoods have added to the mystique surrounding the art of curry making. I suppose it’s in the interest of these curry sauce magnates to imply that their ready-made jars contain a complex combination of ingredients that couldn’t possibly be put together by the British home cook.

But I’ve had a revelation. And a big part of it is because I’ve discovered the true meaning of ‘masala’. For all my life up to now, ‘masala’ was just a generically Indian, curry-related word which was spoken with great authority when ordering an Indian: “I’ll have the chicken tikka masala and a Kingfisher”.

But as of last week, I’ve learned the simple truth that a ‘masala’ is just a mixture of spices, often combined with a bit of water for a DIY curry paste. Get a basic arsenal of spices, learn what goes with what, and you’ve suddenly got a huge repertoire of curries at your fingertips which will exceed anything on the Tesco shelves.

In Fort Cochin I went on a cooking course and learned some basic masala recipes which I’m I thought I’d share with you, dear reader, below.

Fish Curry

MASALA for fish curry
½ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp fenugreek powder (too much fenugreek in masalas can create a bitter taste)
4 tsp chilli powder (I’ve got Kashmiri chilli powder which is a warm, medium strength)
mix together with ½ water glass of tap water

Also (for 4 people)
500g meaty fish (we used barracuda)
½ finger-sized piece of ginger (cut into ½ cm squared pieces)
6-8 cloves of garlic
3-4 shallots (loosely cut)
4 tbalespoons of coconut oil (corn or sunflower is ok, but avoid olive oil)
1 teaspoon of mustard seeds
4-5 teaspoons of tamarind paste

Pour the oil into a pan, and on a low heat start cooking the garlic, shallots, mustard seeds and ginger. Stir together the masala in a separate bowl, and then add it to the pan with the garlic etc., ‘roasting’ it on a slow heat for 7-10 minutes, until it starts to turn a darker colour.

Add the tamarind paste, and then use a good splash of water to rinse out any residue from the masala bowl and add it to the pan. Add a little salt or curry leaves (as in photo) if you fancy. Then turn up the heat a little bit so the curry is starting to bubble very gently—at this point carefully add then add the fish. Cook gently for 20-25 minutes, and try not to mix it too much—fish is more likely to fall apart than meat or vegetables.
Nb. If your curry is looking too watery, then add a little cornflour mixed with water or some potato flour to thicken and stir in gently.

Green Pea Curry

MASALA for Chickpea or Green Pea curry
½ tsp turmeric powder
1 ½ tsp cumin powder
1 tsp chilli powder
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp garam masala
Mix together with ½ glass of tap water

Also (for 2-3 people)
150-200g chick peas or green peas
1-2 onions
1 finger-sized piece of ginger
5 garlic cloves
(Optional) coconut milk
(Optional) fresh tomatoes

Sautee the onion, ginger and garlic in oil. Add the masala, and gently roast until it begins to turn a darker colour and the oil starts to separate a little. Add the peas or chickpeas and cover with a mug of water – just enough so that the water is sitting a little below the line of the vegetables. If you fancy, then add fresh tomatoes at this stage (or anything else that takes your fancy.) Cook on a medium heat for 5-10 minutes. Add a mug of thick coconut milk if you have some lying about—make sure that the pan is off the heat when you add this otherwise it will curdle.

Dhal Curry

MASALA for Dhal Curry
1 ½ tsp cumin powder
1 tsp chilli powder
½ tsp tumeric powder
Mix together with ½ glass of tap water

Also (for 2 people)
1 cup red lentils
2 ½ cups of water
Sprinkle of mustard seeds
6-10 cloves of garlic
1 large onion
3 tablespoons of coconut oil (sunflower or corn is fine—avoid olive oil)

Sautee the garlic and onion. Add the mustard seeds, and then the masala—though don’t cook it for too long as cumin and chilli can burn quite easily. Tip in the lentils and water into the pan with the garlic, onion and masala, then cook on a gentle heat, adding salt to taste. Serve with chopped coriander leaves and a hearty squeeze of lime juice.

Leelu Roy making chapattis

Making Chapatti (roughly 8 chapattis)
1 cup of lukewarm water
2 cups of wheat flour
¼ tsp salt
2 tsp corn/sunflower oil

Use one hand to bring together the flour, water and salt in a mixing bowl. If it’s a little wet then add some more flour. Knead it, then add the oil and knead again for a couple of minutes.

Divide the dough into little, lime-sized balls. Sprinkle a little flour onto a surface and then roll them out to a couple of millimetre’s thickness.

Put the chapatti on a medium heat pan, and cook until it begins to turn colour, then brush some oil on both sides, press and turn with a spatula. Keep them warm by stacking them and covering with a tea towel—reheating them in an oven or microwave will turn them hard.

Leely Roy making chapattis

Comments

  1. gabe10 says

    Oh wow! this is amazing. I’m pretty good with Indian food, but what I make has become a bit redundant. Great post!

  2. Mike WIlson says

    It’s been several months since I took Mrs Roy’s cooking class. I am now in Thailand and the notes I made have been posted home. Tonight I am hoping to recreate some of this food. Many thanks for taking the time to post this.

    Mike

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