The Spice Chronicles: Garam Masala

The Spice Chronicles: Garam Masala

My hair was not prepared for the humidity. Stepping outside our hotel room, the air was thick and we walked along a lit path up to the street. Restaurants lined the narrow road, and when the last of a group of rickshaws and taxis passed, honking and swerving, we skitted across, hand in hand. On the other side, I reached up to touch my head. My strands had already thickened, waves scrunched to curls, and the back of my neck glistened with a light layer of sweat. “Let’s get Indian food,” I said.

Our stomachs had been filled with pad thai, papaya salad, and chicken curry in Bangkok, and after sleeping off the jet lag and touring temples for a few days, we sunk our toes into the sand of Krabi along the Andaman sea. When we ventured off the beach to look for trinkets, I found a small wooden elephant to tuck into my suitcase, and that’s when we spied this Indian restaurant with chana masala listed on the menu posted outside.

That evening we went back, this time walking up a steep set of cement stairs before being shown to a table on the front patio. The server lit our candle and handed us menus, and we quickly ordered chana masala, chicken tikka masala, the largest bowl of fragrant jasmine rice, and a basket of naan.

It was the same thing we always ordered back at home in Playa del Rey, except this time, we were on a different coast. I’m not sure how it started, but for a few months it became something of a ritual to walk to Tandoor-A-India on Friday nights and spoon cardamom-studded rice into warm flatbread. It wasn’t Friday night in Thailand, but it didn’t matter. Our food arrived cradled in copper bowls and we filled our plates, swallowing the heat and spice, cooled from a dollop of raita. That’s when it started raining. Thundering, actually. Dry on the patio, we watched the road fill with puddles and smeared the last bits of sauce with torn pieces of flatbread before making a run for it.

In the three years since enjoying that meal, we’ve moved out of our neighborhood, added a baby to our family, and the short-lived ritual of Friday night Indian food has turned into an occasional call for take out. So I did what any home cook with a craving would do: I went to the store and bought a package of garam masala, dried beans, and juicy tomatoes. Without a plane ticket in hand or a date night in sight, sometimes cooking is all we have. We use our hands, stand in front of our stove, and stir up old memories on a slow simmer.


Chana Masala

Garam masala is an Indian spice blend that can vary from region to region, although it often includes cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, cumin, coriander, nutmeg and pepper. When the spices stew with sliced onions, juicy tomatoes, and tender chickpeas, it adds warmth, not heat. For heat, that’s what the jalapeño is for.

When I wade into uncharted culinary waters, I like to have a reliable guide. For Indian food, Madhur Jaffrey is a welcome companion in the kitchen. I’ve slightly adapted her chana masala recipe based on the ingredients in my spice cabinet, and it’s a wonderful addition to my dinner rotation. I especially like to use homemade chickpeas, but canned will do if you don’t make them in advance. Serve with jasmine rice, a dollop of yogurt, and finish with an extra sprinkle of cilantro.


  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 2 tablespoons ghee
  • 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 small jalapeno, minced
  • Salt
  • 1 ½ pounds tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 4 cups cooked chickpeas
  • ⅔ cup water
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • Chopped cilantro
  • Yogurt, for serving


Mix all the dried spices together in a small bowl. Melt ghee in a large skillet and add the onion, garlic and jalapeno. Season with a pinch of salt and cook on medium heat until the onions have softened and are just beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and the reserved spice mix; stir to combine.

Cook, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes, until the tomatoes are tender and have released their juices. Add the chickpeas and water. Simmer for 10 minutes more, until the sauce has thickened slightly, then stir in ½ teaspoon salt, the lemon juice, and a small handful of cilantro.

Serve with white rice, more cilantro, and yogurt.

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