Last week, while scarfing down some Italian sausages from Marrow, our local confluence of butcher shop and restaurant, I got to thinking about how fennel in the U.S. seems most commonly associated with Italian cooking. But then I remembered my grandmother's garam masala recipe, where fennel emerges not as a background note but as the lead.
My immediate thought was to spend hours researching and documenting the history of fennel and how its lore and use in culinary traditions across the world has progressed over time (from Prometheus hiding embers in a fennel stalk transporting the knowledge of fire to humans, to being one of the ingredients of Chinese five-spice). But then I thought that perhaps I start by giving the gift of my grandmother (ammumma)'s garam masala recipe to the world.
Here's the recipe in its original form which I'll transcribe with a few more words of context below.
For a start, Ammumma, is the word for grandmother in Malayalam, the language of Kerala, the beautiful state in South India, where my family is from. Specifically, it refers to your mother's (Amma) mother. If I were referring to my father's (Acha) mother, it would switch to Achamma.
Garam means warm or hot and masala means spice or a spice mix in Hindi. As with many old recipes, hundreds, perhaps thousands of variations exist, some by region, and many by family. There is no one ring to rule them all. If you scroll through the internet for even a few minutes you'll see various iterations of recipes for garam masala. I haven't found many where fennel (saunf) is the star and I suspect, though cannot confirm as yet, that this is a variation more popular in the south of India.
With that, here is the recipe transcribed, with some of my own commentary.
Fennel seeds – 50 grams
Cardamom pods – 20 grams
Cloves – 20 grams
Cinnamon sticks – 20 grams
Optional – (quantities not mentioned in my grandmother's original recipe so I've approximated based on my attempts or guesses)
Black peppercorns – 20 grams
Star anise – 5 grams
Nutmeg – 5 grams
Note - the quantities above are true to my grandmother's recipe and make a relatively sizable amount of garam masala. This corresponds to the near-daily use in a typical Indian home kitchen so you can adjust this while sticking to a similar ratio if you need a smaller amount.
A rough heuristic I find helpful - 1 tablespoon of fennel is itself about 5-6 grams, and you usually only need a couple tablespoons of garam masala for a recipe.
- Add all of the dry spices to a pan (I favor my cast iron) and dry roast on low to medium-low heat for about a minute or two. You should get all the aroma of the spices but they shouldn't burn.
- If you heat the pan before you add the spices it should take only about 45 seconds to a minute the spices where you need them. The two reasons I enjoy dry roasting are the release of oils that the spices hold, and the slight textural change that occurs which I think makes the spices easier to grind. Also, the aroma your kitchen is left with is always magical.
- Take the spices off the pan and let them cool for a bit
- Grind them to a powder in a spice grinder.
- About the optional ingredients - I've gone heavy on the peppercorns because I love pepper and usually add a little bit of star anise. I've not used nutmeg yet but I usually enjoy the aroma so may have to try that as well. A little star anise goes a long way so I use only about 1/4th of it by weight as compared to the other spices.
- That's it!