Why garam masala drives me crazy

Updated: 11 August, 2020 07:44 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

Its time you asked the question: how does a combination of a dozen unrestrained, aggressive spices produce a single, subtle magical taste?

Like baharat, both garam masala and ras al hanout, add an exotic, indescribable layer to every mouthful, not a taste so much as an ethos. Pic/Getty Images
Like baharat, both garam masala and ras al hanout, add an exotic, indescribable layer to every mouthful, not a taste so much as an ethos. Pic/Getty Images

C Y GopinathIt's called baharat. And no, it has nothing to do with your motherland or with Vande Something Air India flights bringing stranded Indians home to the world's second most infected country. Baharat is a spice mixture I first encountered on a plate in an Emirates Business Class lounge in Dubai. That time, I tasted baharat but had no idea that's what it was called.

Then I saw the name in a Middle Eastern cookbook. It was only a matter of time before I finagled myself some fresh baharat from Dubai. It's dark, close to Maharashtrian goda masala. It's strong: I discerned cumin, cloves, cardamon. I followed the recipe and made spiced chicken with rice, known in Dubai as Machbool Ala Dajaj. And I knew I was back in Emirates Business Class, mile-high among royalty, eating something that could make you feel weak-kneed from pleasure.

My spice was old and dead after 10 years but on Saturday, I found a small family-run Arab grocery in Bangkok, and now I have fresh baharat, as well as sumac, za'atar and ras al hanout. My Sunday lunch was that amazing Emirates chicken-rice again. I am still alive but definitely still in heaven.

One baharat recipe calls for almost equal portions of coriander seeds, cinnamon, cloves and cumin, with a double portion of black peppercorns, two teaspoons of cardamon seeds, some ground paprika and four whole nutmegs! Nearly everything there is strong enough to carry an entrée all by itself as the main flavour — cardamom with kheer; cumin with potatoes; coriander with coconuts and red chillies in theeyal; and so on.

But in the Emirates Chicken Biryani I made this Sunday, I tasted not even one of those macho spices. Instead, on my tongue was the ineffable, elusive taste of — well, affluence. A taste like the smell you get from new brocade and rose water or from a whiff of Million perfume at a wedding. Baharat adds not a taste but an aura.

So does the Indian garam masala, come to think of it.

And Morocco's ras al hanout, whose original recipe requires anything from 12 to 26 ingredients including dried rosebuds and lavender.'

Yet, like baharat, both garam masala and ras al hanout, add an exotic, indescribable layer to every mouthful, not a taste so much as an ethos.

I dug in. How could so many strong spices together so utterly lose their distinctive identities to produce one royal, elusive taste? And how come there were so many such mixtures in every country east of Turkey?

The garam masala on my shelf uses the recipe from my kitchen goddess, Madhur Jaffrey: cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, cumin, cloves and nutmeg. When added to a dal makhani or an alu-gobi, it transports you to a lavish Delhi wedding in winter.

No western cuisine has anything that comes close to a garam masala or a baharat. And one day in 2011, some scientists at the Northwestern University in Boston figured out why after studying 55,000 recipes from all over the world. Western cooking has been built on the hypothesis that when ingredients share flavour molecules, they will taste good together. It works, and when applied mathematically can lead to unlikely combinations such as chocolate and blue cheese, which share at least 73 flavour compounds. Or strawberries and coriander, caviar and white chocolate, bananas and parsley, sage and roasted peanuts, salmon and liquorice, and whiskey and beets.

And then came the surprise: Asian cuisine follows the exact opposite rule. The more flavour compounds two ingredients share, the less likely they are to be used together.

In a follow-up study, Ganesh Bagler, a computational biologist at New Delhi's Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, took apart 2,543 curry recipes and found the same thing. Indian food does its magic by marrying ingredients that have nothing in common.

The legerdemain is in using a universe of ingredients and making them all disappear, leaving a single unforgettable taste. It happens when you use the Punjabi dhanjeera — two measures of coriander to one of cumin ground together. Both vanish in the cooking.

Or the Palakkad tadka that can breathe life into any vegetable — black mustard, urad dal, curry leaves, red chillies and a little hing, all spluttered in a spoon of peanut oil before the lightly steamed vegetable is added.

The garam masalas, baharats and ras al hanouts of our world are ninjas in a hall of mirrors. They seem like a crowd of superheroes waiting to change the world. But cook them together, and they disappear, as do the mirrors.

You are left with a single exquisite houri of taste who will beguile you for hours.

If you'd like a recipe for baharat and also the Emirates Chicken-Rice, you only have to ask. Don't forget to say the magic word.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 11 August, 2020 06:00 IST

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