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In South Asia, Garam Masala means a mixture of cinnamon, clove, black peppercorn, and cardamom either in whole form or in powder form. This is an essential ingredient in meat (chicken, beef, lamb, goat, etc.) curries.

I observed that,

  1. In some recipes, they first add oil to the pan and immediately add whole garam masala and fry them for a minute or two then add onion, and then add meat. In other recipes, they add powdered garam masala much later - after adding meat.

  2. In some recipes, they use raw garam masala powder. In other recipes, they use roasted plus powdered garam masala.

What is the difference?

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  • "add whole garam masala". By whole, do you mean whole spices?
    – AJN
    Commented May 18, 2023 at 12:54
  • @AJN, By whole, do you mean whole spices? ---yes.
    – user366312
    Commented May 18, 2023 at 13:17

2 Answers 2

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Some prerequisite information first:

  1. The recipe for garam masala varies across cultures, regions, cities, and chefs. It means "warming spice", so it always contains some cardamom and cinnamon, but the other spices (and the number of them) can vary.

  2. It's used in a large variety of recipes, not just meat dishes.

  3. In many recipes published for an English-speaking audience, garam masala is included as a substitute for other masalas (spice mixes) that would normally be used in the recipe's place of origin.*

With that background:

The reason for "the difference" is flavor. Fried spices taste different from dry-roasted spices and different from raw spices. Spices that you add at the beginning of cooking taste different in the dish than they do if you add them just before serving. So each recipe is getting a specific flavor out of the garam masala. This particularly makes sense if you consider that the garam masala may be a substitution for some other masala.

This isn't hard to understand if you consider garlic instead of garam masala. Sometimes garlic is added whole, or minced or crushed or pureed. Sometimes it's added at the beginning of cooking, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes at the end, raw for a fierce bite. I even have a pasta recipe that involves all three fried, grated and cooked, and raw slivered garlic.

(* when I lived in Kathmandu, our local masala seller had 22 different mixes he offered. Garam was not one of them.)

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Powdered spices burn quickly in dry or oiled pan. So, powdered spices are either added at the end of cooking or added when there is enough material already in the pan so to reduce the chances of burning the powder.

Whole spices are usually roasted or fried to bring the flavour molecules out.

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  • So, why not use whole spices always?
    – user366312
    Commented May 18, 2023 at 13:18
  • @user366312 because powdered spices are not worse than whole spices, they're just different.
    – brhans
    Commented May 18, 2023 at 14:34
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    That's why there's a bhuna method as well as bhogar [names may vary by region] Bhuna method requires mixing dry powdered masala with water first, making it a bit harder to burn. You fry it until the oil separates out, then get your other ingredients in. Bhogar is spices straight in hot oil & requires more precision.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented May 18, 2023 at 16:26
  • @Tetsujin I was not aware that these techniques had names!
    – AJN
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 12:49
  • They do, but I only know them in a way far-removed from their origins, so I don't know how ubiquitous the terms are. I'm a Brit, a life-long fan of 'indian' food & cooking, but I don't know all the different cultures & techniques properly by region/language/name, my knowledge of this is an amalgam of many sources.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 13:52

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