What is Masala?

Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

Aficionados of Southeast Asian cuisine may be familiar with the mixture of spices known as masala. A blend of fragrant Indian spices in dry or paste form, it is used to flavor many traditional foods and beverages throughout the region. Several different variations of the mixture exist, each with its own unique spice blend and specific use.

Masala is often flavored with coriander.
Masala is often flavored with coriander.

Several types of these herbal blends are used in Indian cuisine. For pungent spice lovers, garam masala may be a favorite flavoring. This blend often features peppercorns, nutmeg, cumin, star anise, cardamom, cloves, and coriander. This vividly intense seasoning is used in conjunction with other spices or alone in dishes such as chicken curry.

Masala chai.
Masala chai.

A fragrant, flavorful hot tea, masala chai is made by blending a selection of spices with loose leaf tea. Like curry, no set recipe exists for the spice blend itself, though milk, sweetener, and warm spices are commonly used. Each cup will vary, though some standard ingredients may include ginger, cloves, black pepper, cardamom, star anise, salt, almonds, nutmeg, licorice, cinnamon, or rose petals. The herbs are usually added during the brewing process.

Loose leaf tea, which is used in making masala chai.
Loose leaf tea, which is used in making masala chai.

For a sweeter taste, chaat masala can be enjoyed on its own or with traditional Indian fast food dishes, such as golgappa, Dahi puri, bhelpuri, and aaloo chaat. The mixture can also be served in drinks or sprinkled on salads and fruits. Some common ingredients in this sweet and sour variation include dried mango powder, chili powder, asafoetida, and ginger.

Many masalas include ground coriander seeds.
Many masalas include ground coriander seeds.

Clay oven cooking styles often make use of tandoori masala. Often used in chicken and fish dishes, this mixture often contains garlic, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and other traditional ingredients. This Northern Indian blend is also used in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Cardamom is a typical ingredient in many masala spice mixes.
Cardamom is a typical ingredient in many masala spice mixes.

Curry, often in the form of a yogurt-based gravy, is made with a masala mixture of coriander, ginger, turmeric, cumin, cloves, and many other seasonings. Onions, garlic, and other ingredients may also be included. It is often used to flavor side dishes made with tofu, chicken, or vegetables served with rice. Chicken tikka masala, another curry meal, is made with a creamy tomato-based orange sauce.

Masala is often used to flavor tofu dishes.
Masala is often used to flavor tofu dishes.

The Hindi word for spice mixture, masala can be found on the menus of many restaurants, both in the Eastern world as well as the West. While most Indian restaurants will carry dishes by this name, many non-Indian venues may also carry a signature dish of this type. These spicy blends can also be used to flavor dishes when cooking at home. While prepared mixtures and pastes are available from some supermarkets and cooking supply stores, many chefs prefer to make their own freshly-ground blends. Some even roast their herbal mixtures for a richer taste.

Turmeric is a spice found in masala.
Turmeric is a spice found in masala.
Asafoetida is an ingredient found in sweet and sour masala.
Asafoetida is an ingredient found in sweet and sour masala.
Herbs can enhance the flavor when making chicken masala.
Herbs can enhance the flavor when making chicken masala.
Masala dishes often feature yogurt and fresh herbs.
Masala dishes often feature yogurt and fresh herbs.
Masala chai is typically prepared using Assan or another bold black tea.
Masala chai is typically prepared using Assan or another bold black tea.
Masala is an aromatic blend of spices that often contains chili, mango, and asafoetida powders.
Masala is an aromatic blend of spices that often contains chili, mango, and asafoetida powders.
Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

A graduate of Southeast Missouri State University, Sara has a Master’s Degree in English, which she puts to use writing for wiseGEEK and several magazines, websites, and nonprofit organizations. She has published her own novella, and has other literary projects currently in progress. Sara’s varied interests have also led her to teach children in Spain, tutor college students, run CPR and first aid classes, and organize student retreats.

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Discussion Comments

anon953663

If you like spicy and healthy, try the chana masala. My guys from India and Sri Lanka made it for me while I was in Iraq. I can't do it without bread and butter, though. If it's made right, it'll clear your sinuses.

anon168521

masala is used to cook indian curry like potatoes, chicken, beef and what vegetables you want to curry.

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