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I just bought a lovely bag of Garam Masala, and was all ready to grind some when I got home! But when I opened it, I found something I didn’t recognise — at first I thought something had gone mouldy, but there’s enough of this in there that whatever it is, I presume it’s supposed to be in there.

Picture of the strange fungus

It looks to me like a fungus or lichen of some sort. The list of ingredients includes “trifle” — could that be a mis-spelling for some Indian species of truffle, perhaps?

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That's just weird. I agree with Doug below that it looks like a wood ear or cloud ear, but what it would be doing in garam masala, I can't imagine! I don't believe either of those fungi have any common use in Indian cuisine. Where did you buy this garam masala? I'd be somewhat disinclined to eat it just based on the oddness. –  Michael at Herbivoracious Feb 6 '11 at 0:55
    
I've asked a few folks on twitter that know a lot about Indian food, I'll let you know if I hear anything back. –  Michael at Herbivoracious Feb 6 '11 at 1:26
    
I bought it at a small local Indian grocery store — it’s not a super-shiny sort of place, but I’ve not had any bad experiences there — they don’t routinely sell out-of-date items or anything. It’s Nirav brand — not the store’s home-made mix or something. –  PLL Feb 6 '11 at 1:46
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@Michael: I think I’ve found what it is, actually — an edible lichen called black stone flower, or dagad phool (see answer below). But I can’t find much info about it; would love to hear if your twitter contacts can give any more info… –  PLL Feb 6 '11 at 2:09
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7 Answers

The full name is lichen stone flower, in Indian it has many names as, patthar ke phool/dagad phool/kalpasi, and mostly used in North India, Goa and Maharashtra. It is used particularly in kabab dishes namely galauti kabab, kakori kabab and many other dishes, maharashtrian goda masala also have it. It is found in foothills of himalaya mountain, after monsoon, locals collect it and sell/supply.

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This spice is called "Kalpaasi" in Tamilian cuisine. I use it in my chicken gravy, mutton gravy and for few vegetarian recipes too. I use kalpasi when I season some of my chutney varieties. It releases a strong curry smell the moment you add it in hot oil. This spice grows inside water wells absorbing pure air (from what I heard from my aunt when I was very young). If you made Biryani and wondered why you're not getting that "Restaurant Biriyani smell", it means you missed putting some "Kalpasi" when you prepared it. If you wanted to try a distinctive Tamilnadu gravy using kalpasi: http://cooking.jingalala.org/2012/12/pakoda-kulambu-recipe-chettinadu-pakoda-kuzhambu-south-indian-style-gravy-varieties/

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This is an edible lichen which is commonly used in Indian spice mixture especially curry masala. I am using this everyday in my kitchen. it gives a very pleasant smell to the curry. About 100gm of this lichen is added to make 750 gm of curry masala powder. Around 10gm of curry masala powder is added to one liter of curry (this is apporximate quantity but it is in this range) so you can imagin how littel quantity is required.

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Just found out from a friend..its also called Kalpasi or Kallupachi (literally Stone Flower / Moss) in Telugu and is a not so commonly used spice in Chettinad cuisine. So, probably it is not the very generic garam masala (which is more common in the Northern part of India than the South) but something very specific to use in certain dishes, say like the Punjabi Garam Masala. Also hear that it is used in Goda masala, something more common in the Western parts of India (goan and maharashtrian cooking).

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It seems to be an edible lichen. It looks very like one described online as (black) stone flower in English and dagad phool in Hindi, which seems to be a not uncommon ingredient in various spice mixes; e.g. on the left in this photo from an Indian food blog:

[Edit: photo removed as I’ve just realised the author of that blog specifically requests not redistributing their content. It’s a nice photo + site, though, if you follow the link!]

Having found these names, it’s now not hard to find a lot of websites mentioning it, especially in blogs/forum threads; but I can’t find any site in English that gives much detailed information. Even its purpose in the mix is a bit unclear: some blog commenters describe it as having a unique earthy, mushroom-y flavour; others, as being similar to star anise; Wikipedia even seems to suggest it might just be a bulking agent. (I don’t get any particular scent off it, at least not dry.)

So I think this is probably the right identification; and I’m reassured that it’s not something wrong with the mix; but I’m still quite intrigued, and would love to hear more about this ingredient from someone who knows it better!

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That's fascinating! I'm glad you found your answer. –  Michael at Herbivoracious Feb 6 '11 at 3:29
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At first I thought those were wood ears, but checking around, they look more like cloud ears. In answer to your question, yes, they are a fungus/mushroom that grows on the sides of trees. I've always cooked with them in Chinese cooking. As for the trifle, I haven't found any connection between wood ears, cloud ears and the word trifle, although depending on who was doing the translation, as you note, truffle could have become trifle, and cloud ears and truffles are both fungi (although the similarity stops there).

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Thankkyou! Hmmm… looking around, though, the photos of cloud/wood ears I can find online don’t look quite like this thing — this is more like a lichen and less like a mushroom. I’ve never had cloud/wood ears, though, so I’m not sure… –  PLL Feb 6 '11 at 1:47
    
Ah — after some more thorough googling than I’d done at first, I think I’ve found it online after all: it is an edible lichen, sometimes called “stone flower”, and can apparently be a reasonably standard component of garam masala. Will put what I’ve found into a separate answer. Thankyou for your help, though, in any case! –  PLL Feb 6 '11 at 1:55
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