What Is Masala?+How To Use In Indian Cooking

how to make chai masala

Masala is the Hindi word for spice.  It can also be used to refer to a blend of spices which can be dry spices or a combination of dry and fresh ingredients (masala sauce or masala paste) used to flavor a dish.

Homemade chai masala powder in a fluted plate with a gold spoon.

Indian spices are key to authentic Indian cuisine.   While essential spices which are used daily are kept in my masala dabba or Indian spice box, I also have some Indian spice mixes on hand. 

Indian cuisine is VERY varied and diverse despite being often clumped together as a bunch of “curries.” Dependent on your preferences and cooking habits some or all of these Indian spice blends will be useful to stock in your pantry.

How Masalas are Used In Indian Cooking

Some common ways spices are used include:

  1. Whole spices often used in tadka/tempering
  2. Ground spices added directly to the dish to layer flavor
  3. Masala paste/sauce: Ground spices sauteed with onions, garlic etc. to infuse the oil with flavor

Individual Masalas Or Spices

This beginner’s guide to Indian spices includes a list of Indian spices and pictures with brief descriptions.  It is meant to serve as an overview of the many spices that can be used in Indian cuisine.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, spices are used to give dishes flavor and not necessarily make them hot. Every Indian spice gives a special flavor, and more than one can be used to give a dish a unique blend of mouth-watering flavors.

Examples of individual spices used are cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mango powder, star anise and black pepper. The extensive Indian spice list provides more pictures, descriptions and ideas for substitutes.

Indian Spice Blends

Dry Spice Blends

I have a list of popular Indian spice blends up but I’d say the most used one in Indian food is garam masala powder. Garam masala translates literally to hot spices (garam means hot, and the word masala means spice).

This Indian mixture of spices is made by roasting whole spices, letting them cool, and then grinding them into a fine powder using a spice grinder.  That spice blend is then added to dishes in addition to OTHER spices to make various dishes.  The layering of spices is part of what makes good, authentic Indian cuisine taste amazing. 

Garam masala powder on a white plate.

The masala mixture is made of a combination of spices that varies across regions and family preferences.  My family uses our own garam masala blend my grandmother used to make!

Chai masala powder is another very popular spice mixture. This blend is added to water, milk, and tea leaves (black tea) to make the ultimate cozy cup of masala chai or masala tea !

There are five main ingredients used commonly to make this blend.  These are cardamom, cloves, black peppercorns, cinnamon, and ginger. In Indian households, you will sometimes see other spices added in such as fennel or nutmeg. 

Other spice blends include chaat masala,

Whole Spice Blends

Panch phoron

Masala Paste or Sauce

Bhuna masala

A mixture of ground spices, tomatoes or tomato puree, and onions are cooked in oil to make a paste.  The paste form is then used as a base in many dishes such as in chana masala, dals and other dishes.

Tikka masala sauce and makhani sauces are other popular examples of this.

Making At Home

Making your own blends of spices freshly ground at home literally levels up the taste of your dishes.

It is a key differentiator in home cooking and you can make them according to your personal preferences and proportions of spices.  Ready made ground spices are sitting on the shelf for some time and lose their flavor.

Garam masala substitute ingredients on a blue plate.
  • Making this at home you can also ensure there are no added fillers are other additives
  • It can be more cost effective.
  • It is easy to do – usually the blend of ground spices is made of common ingredients (if you cook Indian food regularly at home)

Storing

These blends can be stored in an airtight container and can keep fresh for a few months. Making small batches ensures great flavor.

According to Bon Appetit, “You shouldn’t keep ground spices for more than three months and whole spices for more than eight to ten.”

While, I’m definitely guilty of not following that timeline very strictly, I do regularly grind Indian spices and Indian spice blends in batches a few times a year.

Buying

All of these can be found in a local Indian store.  The variety of masalas, sauces and pastes is so great there is generally an aisle dedicated to them! You’ll be able to fill up your spice cabinet and easily make a variety of Indian dishes.

FAQs

What does masala taste like?

Masala tastes like a variety of spices and sometimes fresh ingredients cooked together.  It is used a base or flavoring agent for indian dishes.

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