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  • Writer's pictureGeetanjali Chakraborty

A Tale of Two Spicy Cultures

Updated: Jan 5

I am a granddaughter of India's partition. My mother's family migrated to India from Pakistan before she was born. My father’s family migrated to India from Bangladesh a little after he was born. Both migrated due to the partition of undivided India in 1947. I identify with both these really different cultures and cuisines. I remember that during Navaratri, I’d have a hard time choosing between the mouth-watering fasting cuisine of Northern India (is it really a fast?) and the Bengali delicacies that go with Durga puja.

My paternal grandparents lived with us until they passed. My paternal grandfather (I called him dadu) was born and grew up in Dhaka, Bangladesh. And, my paternal grandmother (didu) grew up in Faridpur, Bangladesh. After both passed, my maternal grandparents came to live with us. They had an interesting history as well. My maternal grandfather (who I called papa because I heard my mother call him that) grew up in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan. My maternal grandmother (who I called mummy by the same token) grew up in Bahawalpur, Pakistan.

Our dining table dynamics in India were fascinating. When my paternal grandparents lived with us, I would talk in Bangla to everyone except my mother, who I spoke to in hindi even though she spoke fluent Bangla in a Punjabi accent. My language repertoire expanded when my maternal grandparents came to live with us. I would still talk to my mother in Hindi, but would observe that she spoke to her parents in Punjabi. Now I understand Punjabi to quite an extent although I don't speak it.

Our food had diversity on the dining table. We would always have a blend of Bengali and Punjabi dishes. I have sort of been a stickler when it comes to eating certain dishes.

In my head, some things go only with roti/chapati and some only with rice. Depending on what I felt like eating that day or that meal, I had the option to switch between Bengali and Punjabi options.

Both these cultures are spicy in their own way, and I want to focus on a foundational spice they share, but make differently: garam masala, which translates to hot spice. Garam masala is not hot in the sense of "chili" hot, but it does have the heating quality.

The Bengali Garam Masala

Ingredients: Cardamom (elaichi), Clove (lavanga), and Cinnamon (darchini)

These would be first dry roasted, then ground together, mixed in water and added on top of foods while they were being cooked.

Let's look at its properties.

The different texts give similar and diverse perspectives and we can interpret all of the commentaries as being a "yes, and". If we do, then we notice that all the five elements are present in the taste of the three spices. Taken together, all the doshas are alleviated. This is a somewhat involved Ayurvedic explanation that might explain why this combination has been used for a long time. These spices are very subtle in their nature. We should freshly roast and grind as they have volatile oils in them which release their flavors in the food being cooked, improving its digestibility through enhanced smell and taste.

The Punjabi Garam Masala

Ingredients: Jeera (cumin), Gol mirich (black pepper), Black Cardamom (badi elaichi), Green Cardamom (choti elaichi), Clove (lavanga), and Cinnamon (darchini)

In our home, these would be dried in the sun instead of roasted. After drying, they would be ground. Alternatively, they can also be dry roasted and then ground. You will note that the Punjabi version is a superset of the Bengali version and adds on cumin, black cardamom and black pepper etc. Certain garam masalas would include bay leaf, nutmeg, whole red chilli etc. The customizations are endless. There is also a version of garam masala where the spices are not ground and are instead cooked whole in oil/ghee or dropped whole into food being cooked. This version is called 'khade masale'. If it is cooked in oil/ghee, right after the aroma emanates, food is added and cooked in it.

Garam masala is a spice combination that is customized to each household, especially the ones that like grinding their own spices. While this particular combination was used in my household by my mother and grandmother, I learned a different combination as a student of Ayurveda. Garam means "hot" and masala means "spice." This is called hot because it helps to break down heavier foods like meats, beans, etc. which are otherwise harder to digest. This spice mix makes it easier to digest when used in cooking.

In winter and spring, one can go easy and add it to various recipes on a daily basis as we need. The mix helps with generating heat in the food during winter, and as per the Ayurvedic texts, in Spring, it helps counter the kapha (think mucus) in our body that has slowly started melting after the transition from winter. Whereas, in other seasons like summer, this is best skipped because you want more of cooling spices to coincide wit the weather.

When we make these mixes by hand, we engage with its healing properties of the spices as we know each ingredient at a personal level. We can modulate the spice level as per our liking and taste. This is quite different from buying store-made pre-packaged garam masala mixes. Those can never compete with the freshness of your hand-made garam masala. I recommend making one batch freshly prepared and compare with a store-bought sample of garam masala so you can draw your own conclusion. In the last twenty years, I haven't bought over the counter pre-packaged masalas. Instead, I look up the recipe and modulate it to my taste. For instance, I omit red chillies because my system can't handle it. Personal customizations are very empowering for a family and gives us an opportunity to go beyond pre-conceived configurations of an entire cuisine.

Once you know your spices, you will be able to make your own version of chaat masala, a tangy spice mix that is famous in Indian street food. The predominant flavoring comes from four ingredients: roasted cumin powder, black salt, black pepper, and mango seed powder. Unlike garam masala which is used to cook foods, chaat masala is usually used on top of uncooked foods like salads and fruits. It is also often used on certain yogurt dishes.

India is known for its spices and every region has its own unique spices based on traditions, weather conditions, and what is locally available. I hope that reading this blog, you might be inspired to remember the flavors from your childhood and recreate for your family hand-made spice mixes that can be passed down.

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