When the Indian spice trade picked up in the 16th century in Europe, black pepper was said to be literally worth its weight in gold. With only salt and fat to use for flavor, consider how awful medieval food must have been. But blandness has never been a problem for Indian chefs.
India’s regional cuisines—shaped over millennia by foreign invaders, religious beliefs, and its rigid caste system—are unified by carefully balanced spicing. Since 80 percent of India’s population is Hindu, the most potent influence on its food is Ayurveda, the Hindu “science of life.” Rooted in ancient texts dating from around 1000 BC, Ayurveda contains the medical, recreational, ethical, and culinary knowledge necessary to maintain harmony in one’s life.
Ayurveda aims for balance, particularly in the kitchen. Properly constructed, a meal should include elements with each of the six tastes (rasa in Sanskrit): sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Too much or too little of any taste is said to aggravate the three biological humors that flow through the body’s channels. Vata, translated as wind, represents the breath, the heart beat, and everything else that moves. Pitta means fire, and corresponds to digestion, both physical and mental. Kapha, phlegm, holds things together. Each taste produces certain effects in the body, from stimulating digestion to depleting reproductive secretions.
Garam masala is a spice blend that captures the complexity of tastes and aromas of Indian cuisine. In India, chefs invariably mix and grind their own garam masala, using a combination of black peppercorns, cloves, bay leaves, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, nutmeg, mace, and star anise. In Hindi, garam means “heating,” not spicy-hot but warming. In Ayurvedic tradition, it would be classified as pungent, a taste that is said to improve metabolism and dilate the body’s channels. In curries, garam masala is usually added towards the end of the cooking process, to avoid diluting its aroma.
In Providence, you can buy garam masala powder at Not Just Spices, on Hope Street. Across from Not Just Snacks, arguably Providence’s best Indian restaurant, this fragrant store is packed to the ceiling with exotic spices, teas, vegetables, and prepackaged Indian fare.
The fragrant spices and hint of orange in the following recipe get the blood flowing. It’s perfect after a meal or with a cup of tea. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Use soy or almond milk to make it vegan. Combine different flours, oils, and sugars. Add chopped nuts or dried fruit to the batter.
Orange Garam Masala cake
1 hour, including 45 minutes baking time
By Valerie Kim
1 cup milk
Zest of one orange
Juice of one orange
½ cup honey
¾ cups sugar
½ cup oil
3 ½ cups flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 tsp garam masala
1 tbsp flaxseeds (optional)
1 cup almonds
¼ cup honey
¼ cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Mix the milk, zest and juice and let sit for five minutes. Add the honey and oil; mix.
Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, flax seeds and garam masala.
Mix the dry and wet ingredients until combined, but no longer. Otherwise, gluten will form and the cake will be tough.
Pour the batter into a cake or muffin pan. Bake for about 45 minutes, until a knife in the center comes out clean. Reduce time to 15 minutes if making cupcakes.
For the icing, combine all the ingredients and blend for several minutes, until completely smooth. Pour over the cooled cake.