What are Masalas or spice blends?
I will share something I said to a friend about making ghee. Some people will deliberately complicate an otherwise stupidly simple concept, in order to
engage you as a reader/user/follower
sell you a product so you keep coming back for more because you think it saves you time/agony.
Another Facebook friend asked an innocent question about Anglo Indian Bottle Masala - and I think the answer can benefit more people's understanding of Indian spice blends I'm including in my upcoming cookbook Masaleydaar and in the Masala Advent.
There are many ways to classify Indian spice blends. While shaping the structure of Masaleydaar, I struggled - should I categorize them as wet versus dry, whole versus powdered or some other category. Ultimately, I decided to group them by region, because it allowed me to share different blends without hopping all over the place, figuratively and literally. It also gives me the ability to cross reference within the same regional taste profiles, and provide context to the blend.
Purists will go one way, generalists will go another, and unfortunately the person in the kitchen is left staring at their spice shelf confused and defeated. Don't do that or feel that way.
For anyone who is curious about the blends and how they are different, the most practical, day-to-day, or pedestrian way is to think about its application.
If one is looking through the spices section of an Indian grocery store, it can be confusing. I look at it simply: is it a dish-specific spice blend or a multi-purpose spice blend.
Dish Specific Blends:
Most commercially available blends, like Biryani Masala, Dhansak Masala, Gujarati Daal Masala, Sambar Masala (I'm making the latter three for Masaleydaar) are preferred for specific dishes - as you'd guess by their name. While they are versatile enough to carry flavors forward in other dishes with a similar function on a plate (for instance a meat/protein/rice dish)- they are typically reserved for the namesake recipe. They are full bodied blends that require a fair bit of supporting ingredients like onions, ginger-garlic, yogurt / tomatoes etc. in addition to the main ingredient (meat/vegetable/protein/lentils) to make a flavor balanced dish.
As their category suggests, they are versatile enough for more than one dish. Many of them have community specific names as part of the blend. Common ones include Malwani, Anglo-Indian, Konkani, Mangalore Bunt etc., or even have regional references like Kashmiri, Lucknowi, Bengali, Rajasthani etc.
Many of these are used as an ‘all-in-one’ blend, and typically other powdered spices are not included in recipes that use these blends. For instance, the Anglo Indian community prefers the Anglo Indian Masala for meat based dishes, to give it an extra kick. But if you are a vegetarian, you can surely cook potatoes or something else with the blend.
While I firmly believe that nearly any spice blend has a host of applications, some are more versatile than others. The cross-over blends include our seasonal favorite: Chai Masala that is now finding favor in other dishes, such as pies and cookies. Similarly, Tandoori Masala is versatile, as you’ll see in this reel on Tandoori Goat Cheese & Red Pepper Bites with Mango Salsa.
So/But How Can I Use ____ Spice Blend?
Let me tell you a story.
For my upcoming cookbook Masaleydaar, I created a recipe for a lusciously delicious Okra Kadhi that uses Rasam Powder. It uses the base of a kadhi - a yogurt ‘sauce’ and is thickened with besan, i.e. chickpea flour. It is seasoned with some spices and then Rassam powder. The whole preparation is cooked on the stovetop and ultimately served warm as a side to rice.
Gosh, I can't tell you how much I agonized over this. I struggled about where to classify it:
Is it a Gujarati preparation because it is kadhi?
Or is it a Sindhi preparation because it is a kadhi with besan and hing?
Or is it a South Indian preparation because it uses Rasam Powder?
What about yogurt and its origins?
Is it even an Indian dish?
After chatting with a few people, I decided - my recipe, my book, my rules 😀 It is Indian because of the flavors and techniques, the combination of ingredients and the serving style. It is part Gujarati and Sindhi because it is a thickened yogurt preparation. It is part South Indian, because it uses Rasam Powder.
Would you drink it as soup? You could.
Would I be happy with it as soup? No.
If you call it Kadhi on your restaurant menu, and then serve it as soup, I’ll be disappointed (in you).
Recipe for the Okra Kadhi with Rasam Powder?
Preorder the book or wait.
So, yes. In theory you can use any blend for anything. If you plan to serve it to someone who has a different reference point than yours, tread carefully 🙂 But also tell them why.
If it is delicious, they should not care what it is called <3 The adage goes..."A rose by any other name..."
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