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What Is Masala?Different Types Of Masala In Indian Food

What Is Masala?Different Types Of Masala In Indian Food

Ever came across the word ‘Masala’ in an Indian recipe and wondered what is masala? Here is a guide that not only clarifies the meaning but also lists the different types of masala used in Indian food enticing you to try some for yourself. 

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‘Masala’ is a term synonymous to Indian food. A word that has also been included in dictionaries around the world. But what the dictionary fails to capture is the expanse of the meaning and different types of masala used in Indian food.

Not only is it a word, but it implies different ways in which masala is used in culinary context. .

After reading this post, I guarantee you will have a much clearer understanding of what does masala mean, the uses of masala in cooking Indian food and the different types of masalas.

What Is Masala?

As per the dictionary, the definition of masala is a spice mixture that has been ground into a powder or paste used for cooking Indian food.

‘Masala’ is a Hindi language word which literally translates to spices. It is a generic term used to denote individual spices or a blend of spices in cooking.

In Indian cuisine, there are hundreds of spices used. Each spice has a name that it is identified with just like each person as a name for identification.

In short, masala is a word that represents spices or something that is made with a mix of spices.

What Is Masala Made Of

Apart from the fact that the meaning of masala is spices, in coking, the word masala is used when 2 or more spices are mixed together. The ingredients or spices used to make masala will differ as per the dish and the mix.

This blend of spices can be made with:

1. Dry ground spices, like a garam masala powder , curry powder, biriyani masala

A ground masala mix
A masala blend with powdered spices

2. A mix of whole spices, such as a khada garam masala, Indian five spice blend

paanch phoron in a white bowl
A blend of whole spices

3. A wet or moist blend or paste combined with some type of ingredient high in fluid content such as water, tomato, ginger, garlic,onions.

bhuna masala paste in a jar
Wet masala paste

There is no set recipe for a masala. The unique blends and combination of spices in masala is largely dependent on regional, geographical, religious and personal preferences.

There is a possibility that different masala blends aka spices could be used to make a similar recipe and yet be an traditional Indian dish.

Meaning of Masala in Indian Cooking

This is where masala takes a deeper meaning and broader application especially related to cooking Indian food.

The core meaning of masala is a spice blend, however there are different application of the word in culinary terms. Below are some of the ways in which the term masala is used

  • To express heat level – The use of the term ‘masala’ to explain a dish means something with spices. This could also refer to the level of hotness in the dish. This is the reason you have different masala’s indicated as mild, moderate and hot.
  • Referred as base cooking sauce – 80% of Indian dishes require a base sauce to be made prior to adding other ingredients. This base sauce is referred to as ‘masala’ as it involves mixing different types of ingredients such as spices usually along with onion, ginger, garlic, tomatoes.
  • Different types of dishes – You may have come across restaurant menus listing few dishes with the word masala added to the name. Some of the popular dishes are, tikka masala, chana masala, masala bhindi, chicken masala, masala gobhi, masala chai to name a few. This is a way of highlighting that the dish has different types of spices and may be of moderate to high heat level.

Different Types of Masala

There are many types of masala powder or spice blends used to cook different types of Indian dishes.

There are some typical masala blends that are popular across the globe and used for cooking Indian food.

It is to be noted that the same masala blends may have different combinations and proportions of spices used in making the mix. No two blends are the same.The types and quantity of spices used to make each blend differs from region to region and even personal tastes.

Some could be the hot Indian masala blends while others the milder versions.

Below is a list of some of the best Indian masalas for you to try classified into dry masala blends and wet masala blends:

14 Popular Indian dry masala blends

1. Tikka Masala

One of the most popular spice blends outside the subcontinent, tikka masala is used for making both veg and non- veg dishes. It is slightly spicy with hints of tanginess.

Origin – North Indian

Key Ingredients – Coriander, cumin, green cardamom, black pepper corn, kashmiri chillies, amchur powder, cinnamon, turmeric.

Spice level – Medium

Usage – Use 2-3 tsp for making a serving of 4 in dishes such as paneer tikka, chicken tikka, veg tikka and also added to sauce base for making the popular chicken tikka masala dish.

2. Curry Powder

A blend of most used Indian spices for making a basic Indian dish. It is earthy and warm with a multipurpose use.

Origin – UK

Key IngredientsTurmeric, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves

Spice level – medium to hot

Usage – Curry powder may not be the quintessential authentic Indian spice, but it can be used in a variety of dishes for a special Indian taste. Add 3-4 tsp when making a serving of 4 in a sauce or 2-3 tsp for dried dishes.

3. Garam Masala

A strong pungent aromatic spice that is used in every household across India. Every region in India have their own special garam masala spice blend.

Origin – Across India

Key IngredientsGreen cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, blackpepper, coriander, cumin, black cardamom, bay leaves

Spice level – Mild

Usage – Use 1-2 tsp for a serving of 4. Garam masala powder can be added to the dish while cooking or at the end so elevate the flavours.

4. Chaat Masala

More a seasoning than a spice chaat masala is a blend of tangy roasted spices. It has a sour undertone and flavourful. A unique blend that does not require to be cooked.

Origin – North India

Key Ingredients – Coriander, cumin, asafoetida, cloves, dry mango powder, black salt

Spice level – Mild

Usage – Sprinkle as per your taste on fried dishes, salads, fruits

5. Khada Masala

An aromatic blend of whole spices used to add flavour to dishes.

Origin -Across India

Key Ingredients – Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom, bay leaves

Spice level – Mild

Usage – Add whole spices to curries and rice dishes ideally in warm oil or in a liquid.

6. Bengal Paanch Phoran Masala

This blend in also known as Indian five spice blend. Nutty and aromatic, this is a blend of five seed spices that can be added to a variety of dishes.

Origin – West Bengal

Key Ingredients – Cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, black seeds

Spice level – Mild

Usage – Add a tsp of paanch phoron masala to warm oil for making curries, stir fries, and many other dishes.

7. Goda masala

A regional spice mix used typically in Maharashtrian and neighbouring state cuisine. It is pungent but not hot as most goda masala blends do not include chillies.

Origin – Maharashtra

Key Ingredients – Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, bay leaves, white sesame seeds, coconut, black and white peppercorns

Spice level – Mild – Medium

Usage – This blend can be used on its own or combined with other spices. Ideally added at the end of cooking to enhance the taste. Use 1-2 tsp when making a serving of 4 in curries, stir fried vegetables or slow cooked stews.

8. Sambhar Masala

Used to prepare a typical lentils and vegetables dish known as sambhar, this is a must have spice blend in all South Indian households.

Origin – South India

Key Ingredients – Red chillies, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, peppercorns, fenugreek seeds, turmeric, toor dal (yellow lentils),and dried curry leaves

Spice level – medium to hot

Usage – Typically used to make sambhar broth you can also add 2-4 tsp of sambhar powder to other curry dishes for the special sambhar taste.

9. Biriyani Masala

A special dish traditional made with rice and meat. It is a blend of aromatic spices in varying proportion and types of spices used as per the region and biriyani recipe.

Origin – Persia

Key Ingredients – Cinnamon, black cardamon, green cardamom, black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cumin,coriander, star anise, red chilli powder

Spice level – medium to hot

Usage – Use 3-5 tsp for a serving of 4 , add to marinade meat or vegetables and also added to the base biriyani sauce.

10. Tandoori Masala

Perhaps one of the most popular Indian dishes across the world, tandoori masala is used for BBQing meat and vegetables. It is a mix of pungent and fragrant spices to cook food in a clay pot oven called tandoor.

Origin – Punjab

Key Ingredients – Garlic powder , ginger powder, cinnamon, green cardamom, cloves, kashmiri red chilli , mace, cumin,coriander

Spice level – Mild to medium

Usage – Use to marinade meat and vegetables for BBQ

11. Pav bhaji Masala

Another regional food, pav bbhaji is an Indian street food made with slow stewed mix of vegetables in a spicy sauce and served with bread. Pav bhaji masala is a special blnd of spices used to make this dish .

Origin – Maharashtra

Key Ingredients – Turmeric, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves, black salt, mango powder, red chilli

Spice level – Hot

Usage – Apart from using the blend to make pav bhaji you can also use 1 – 2 tsp of the spice blend for making other spicy rice and vegetable dishes.

12. Masala Tea Powder

A blend of aromatic spices that adds heaps of flavour and health to a cup of tea.

Origin – North India

Key Ingredients – Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, ginger powder

Spice level – Mild

Usage – Add a tsp to one cup of boiling water to make tea.

13. Chana Masala

A strong and intense spice blend to make chickpeas curry.

Origin – North India

Key Ingredients – Turmeric, coriander, cumin, black cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, mace, caraway seeds, pomegranate powder, red chilli

Spice level – medium to hot

Usage – Use 3-4 tsp of chana masala powder when making a serving for 4 people. You can also use the same spice blend to make other meat and vegetarian curries.

14. Rajma Masala

Similar to chana masala, rajma masala is used to make kidney beans dish. A blend of mild, aromatic and pungent spices it adds both flavour and taste to legumes.

Origin – Punjab

Key Ingredients – Turmeric, coriander, cumin, black cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, carom seeds, pomegranate powder, dry mango powder

Spice level -Mild

Usage – Use 2-4 tsp of the mix to add to rajma dish or other legume and lentils dishes.

Different types of masala list

Popular Indian wet masala sauces

The wet masala pastes or sauces are used primarily as the base ingredient for the dish. They are made using fresh aromates such as onion, ginger, garlic and tomatoes which makes it easier to blend into paste.

  1. Bhuna masala paste

Bhuna in English means roasted. Onions and tomatoes are fried in oil with other spices and aromates to make a basic Indian wet masala blend for cooking the base of for many curries.

Origin – Across India

Key Ingredients – Onion, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, turmeric, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, red chilli powder

Spice level – Mild – hot

Usage – Use as a base sauce for cooking typical Indian dishes. You can combine it with other ground spices if you wish.

2. Harayali Masala paste

‘Hariyali’ means green. A fresh aromatic Indian green masala paste that goes into making dishes that require a minty, coriander flavour and taste.

Origin – North India

Key Ingredients – Onion, ginger, coriander leaves, mint leaves , green chillies, turmeric, cumin, , red chilli powder

Spice level – Mild – hot

Usage – Use it for making chicken and dairy product based dishes such as paneer (Indian cottage cheese).

3. Korma paste

A mild nutty aromatic sauce normally mixed with yoghurt or cream to make a thick silky aromatic sauce base.

Origin – North India

Key Ingredients – Onion, ginger, garlic, green cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, cashew nuts, black and white peppercorn

Spice level – Mild

Usage – Use the paste for making chicken, fish or vegetable curries.

4. Makhni paste

Makhni means with butter. It is a rich creamy buttery sauce made with other aromatic spices for delectable smooth curry bases.

Origin – North India

Key Ingredients – Onion, ginger, garlic, turmeric, green cardamom, cloves, butter, kashmiri chilli

Spice level – Mild – medium

Usage – Add cream to makhni sauce to make smooth creamy milder version of hot Indian curries.

5. Kolhapuri Paste

Earthy, robust and spicy, this paste is not for the faint hearted. Tangy and aromatic this is an incredibly delicious masala paste for the spice lovers.

Origin – Maharashtra

Key Ingredients – Onion, tomato, ginger, ginger, garlic, turmeric, red chillies, peanut oil, coconut

Spice level – Hot

Usage – This masala paste is used to make regional dishes from Kohlapur. You can use it to make veg and chicken curries.

6. Bengali mustard and poppyseed paste (Shorshe paste)

This is a typical mix of spice used to make the regional dishes from Eastern part of India. Pungent and strong, this paste adds thickness and a mustardy flavour to the dish it is added to.

Origin – West Bengal

Spice level – Medium

Key Ingredients – Mustard seeds, poppy seeds, green chillies

Usage – Used for making seafood, and vegetables based dishes. This mix needs to be used sparingly to avoid a very strong pungent or bitter taste in the dish.

7. Vindaloo paste

Derived from the Portuguese dish called carne de vinha d’alhos (meat marinated in wine vinegar and garlic) it is a popular spice blend used to make Goan meat dishes. Tangy and spicy this paste is a flavour overload.

Origin – Goa

Spice level – Hot

Key Ingredients – Red chillies, garlic, ginger, white wine vinegar, cloves, fenugreek, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin

Usage – Typically used to make meat dishes , you can also use the paste to make vegetable and egg curry as well.

Difference Between Curry and Masala

Another popular term used to define certain Indian dishes is ‘curry masala’.

So if masala means a mix of spices, is it different to curry masala?

Let’s begin with their origins first!

In terms of definition,‘Curry, is a generalised term or word used to simplify a type of dish for non-natives. 

Is it used to imply a dish with a gravy or sauce base. In other words it is way the mixing of different food elements especially spices have been interpreted and classified as a curry form of cooking.

The popular curry masala is a spice blend which the British tossed up together to reduce the complexity of spices used in Indian cooking, although the authenticity part may be debatable!

In easy terms:

  • Masala = blend of spices wet or dry, also a culinary term used for cooking the main base sauce.
  • Curry = Indian gravy based dish

Where To Buy Masalas

You can easily buy different types of masala blends and pastes in most Indian grocery stores or online.

My most favourite online store to buy different types of masalas or spices fresh is from The spice house.

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Amy Liu Dong
Amy Liu Dong
1 year ago

I’ve learned a lot from this article. Now, I know that there are different types of masala used depending on the dishes that you are cooking.

1 year ago

So much great info. Thanks for all your tips and recipes.

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