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Why Shouldn’t You Ask an Indian for Curry? Garam Masala Recipe

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When I was a kid I was always confused by the word “curry” because my non-Indian friends used it in a way that didn’t make any sense to me. They called everything from a dry potato saute with spices, to soupy lentils, to chicken in a cream sauce “curry.”

Indians usually only use the word “curry” when they are speaking English and then only when referring to something with a sauce or gravy, rather than a spice.

Curry is a word invented by the British back when they ruled India. It is the anglicized version of the Tamil word kari, meaning sauce and is now commonly used to describe almost any food of South Asian origin.

Spooning out some garam masala

I used to get really upset when people would use the word “curry”. I would insist that foods be called by their proper names because there is no such thing as curry in Indian food and that curries are a British invention.

Over the years as I’ve introduced more and more friends to Indian food, and translated the traditional Indian names into English, I’ve found myself using the word “curry” more and more. It is useful as an English translation for the word masala (meaning a mix of spices).

It just made more sense to people new to Indian food. I no longer get upset about the term, but embrace it instead. The word curry invokes an image of warm, spicy, delicious food. And since language is ever changing, I’m okay with accepting the word into my vocabulary.

How to make Garam Masala from scratch by Indiaphile.info
Garam masala in front of a masala dhaba.

I’ve found that most people who are new to Indian food use the word curry as they are learning about the cuisine but switch to the authentic names of foods as they become more familiar with it. What more can I ask for?

Indian spice merchants are said to have invented the well known curry powder for British colonial personnel returning to Britain. The closest thing to the store bought “curry powder” that is commonly used in the Indian kitchen is the garam masala. There are many other spice mixtures available in Indian (and Indian stores) that can also be called curry powder, but if you have to guess what someone means by curry powder, garam masala is a safe bet. 

Bowl of garam masala

Garam means warm or hot, and masala means a mixture of spices. This spice mixture is not about spicy heat from chili but more about the warmth and complexity created by blending various spices. There is no set recipe for a garam masala, it varies greatly depending on region and personal preference.

My mom doesn’t use garam masala. She likes to just use a blend of half cumin and half coriander seed powder and add in other dry spices and fresh ingredients like ginger, garlic and cilantro as she cooks.

So when I set about trying to find a garam masala I didn’t have an old family recipe to refer to. I experimented a lot. I started with store bought versions but was never happy with them. Then I started blending my own.

Cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper and cloves are the backbone of most garam masalas. So I started with a basic version with just a few spices. That first batch was okay, better than store bought but I wasn’t completely happy. Over the last couple years, I’ve worked out a recipe that I really like. I like to throw in a lot of different spices because I like the complexity. I’ll probably still keep fiddling with it, because that’s me! But here’s my current recipe. Feel free to experiment with your own set of spices.

How to make Garam Masala from scratch by Indiaphile.info
Garam masala

Garam Masala

A versatile spice mixture used in many Indian dishes, garam masala is known to some as "curry"
5 from 5 votes
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 5 minutes
Total Time 10 minutes
Course Spice Mixtures
Cuisine Indian
Servings 40
Calories 4 kcal


  • 3 Tbsp cumin seeds
  • 3 Tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp cardamom seeds remove the green shell and use just the black seeds
  • 1 Tbsp black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp cloves
  • 2 inch piece of cinnamon stick
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 mace
  • 1 to 2 dried red chilies (optional)


  • Toss all the spices onto a dry pan and heat over medium heat. Stir often.
  • Heat until you start to smell the aroma of the spices and they start to turn golden brown about 5 minutes. Watch very carefully that the spices don’t burn. Constant stirring is important.
  • Once the spices are toasted, separate out the nutmeg. Use a microplane or fine grinder to grate the nutmeg. (You can toss it into the spice grinder but every time I do, it makes so much noise that I’m afraid my grinder will break so I just grate the nutmeg separately and add it in later).
  • Grind the the rest of the spices using either a spice grinder, clean coffee grinder or morter and pestle.
  • Add in the grated nutmeg. Mix well.



Garam masalas vary extensively, if you do not have all of the ingredients, you can leave some out and still have an authentic garam masala. Any combination of star anise, mace, and fennel seed can be left out for a simpler garam masala.
Until recently, I’ve always included dried red chili in my garam masala. Today, I tend to leave it out to better control the heat of my recipes to suit the tastes of my young child.


Serving: 5gCalories: 4kcalSodium: 1mgPotassium: 17mgVitamin A: 10IUVitamin C: 0.1mgCalcium: 10mgIron: 0.5mg
Keyword garam masala, spices
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!
Categorized as Spices


    1. People order chai tea because it is listed that way on menus, especially at coffee shops. They don’t even know what chai means. I just order Pepsi Pepsi 🙂

  1. Thank you for sharing your recipe ~ I have struggled to find a decent Garam Masala. I made my own but overdid the cloves…..do you think I can just double up on the other ingredients so that the cloves are not so overpowering, or just start from scratch again?

  2. Don’t get offended, be grateful that someone is open to other cultures 🙂 I’ve seen plenty of resistance to anything foreign in the U.S. and Europe. England has probably been the place most open to integration despite it’s long history of bringing its own idea of “civilisation” to the rest of the world (not only India) and it can appreciate Indian cuisine better than anyone outside of Asia; even if gravy just so happens to be their favourite part of the meal. Eating a falafel there would send you running to the nearest “curry” vendor – trust me. You wouldn’t believe some of the Indian cuisine I’ve actually spent money on in Germany! And just think what Italians have to put up with when they discover the Indian pizza culture! So, no cause for getting upset. Plenty gets lost in translation and people just look for the best way to communicate by creating avenues in the best way that they can, even if they have to simplify words or bend their meaning. Peace.

    1. Hopefully we’ll get to a place where people don’t see this type of cuisine as foreign. I can’t speak for Euorope, but Indian cuisine is very much a part of my experience growing up in America, along with a lot of other people. Also, thank you for educating those who don’t really know what these terms mean about them. I think when in doubt, communication solves a lot of problems.

  3. Thank you for sharing the recipe of Garam masala. In India there are various forms of garam masala , it varies from region to region and the flavours are also different.

  4. Yeah. The first time I heard about it, I was like wtf is curry powder. And I’m as Indian as Indian can be.
    Also, Garam Masala under the brand name MDH is pretty close to homemade versions, so if someone’s feeling a little lazy…

  5. Alright, so kari means sauce.. shouldn’t it be a normal thing to bring up in indian cuisine then, not “only used when speaking english” ? It sounds like most of the time we’re saying curry we should be saying masala, because we’re trying to say “a food with a bunch of indian spices in it”

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  7. One of my favorite Filipino dishes is kari kari, which is a regional dish from the southern parts of the islands. It is a thick stew with ox tails, vegetables, and peanut sauce. There must be a solid connection with this dish and India as historically the islands were an important trading partner for centuries.

  8. I have a plant that a local Garden Center was selling as a curry plant. I always thought there was an actual spice called curry that was not a blend of spices. But plantsnap is identifying this as lavender or silver Sagebrush it’s not calling it Curry. Does anyone know if there is a plant called Curry or am I mistaken something else?

    1. Hi Robert! Thanks for your comment. There is such a thing as a curry tree or a curry leaf plant (Murraya koenigii). It is part of the Rutacaea family and related to citrus, rue, and satinwood not lavender or sagebrush. Hope this helps!

  9. Very informative, I did not know this about the history of the word. I lived in south India for 2 years and the word curry was used all the time by Indians, I am surprised no one ever mentioned that. I was told that a curry was like a soup or sauce that meat and vegetables are cooked in. Thank you for adding clarity.
    Why do I see in my local grocery store (WV), curry powder is yellow like it is mostly turmeric and garam masala is brown like cumin?
    It also cracks me up when I see Chai Tea on a menu, can someone explain this to the US.

  10. Curry is definitely an Indian word, used among Tamil speaking people of the south. Curry is the name of any spicy veggie or meat dish. Curry powder is a spice mix that we make and store in the kitchen, much like garam masala in the north. It’s used in curries. Curry leaves are used in almost all south indian dishes. Curry does NOT mean sauce in South India. I think North Indians are unfamiliar with terms used in the South. Please educate yourselves.

  11. 5 stars
    Wonderful article. My comment: When I travel & seek out what ever food I’m craving I always ask who the chef is and do they know how to cook the food I expect. I don’t mind paying double for authentic food from the country I expect to be served from. Good thing about Indian restaurants, it’s usually a family affair meaning everyone that works there is going to be Indian & authentic. Thanks for the history and the recipe.

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