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Masala is a tough thing to write about if you haven’t grown up with someone cooking it for you, or had the opportunity to submerge yourself in south Asian cuisine, learning the intricacies of a masala as a foundation for everything from curries to tea. Masala isn’t one single ingredient, but a layered combination of ingredients; it refers to a spice mixture and could be a dry spice blend – cumin, coriander, chile powder and turmeric are common – or a moist combination of onions, garlic, ginger and chiles that, together, often with dry spices as well, build the base for a flavourful curry. There might be cardamom pods or mustard seed, warm spices like cinnamon, allspice and clove, amchoor (dried green mango powder) or asafoetida, the dried resin of a rhizome that boosts umami and has a flavour reminiscent of leeks. Most south Asian home cooks have a masala dabba in their kitchen – a round metal container with smaller containers inside holding whole and ground dry spices, like a painter’s palette. 

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Masalas are fiercely regional, each spice blend reflective of the terroir, influencing the complex flavours of dishes in each area. I deferred to Alberta Food Tours’ president and Indian cooking expert Karen Anderson, who travels to India often and knows the cuisine well. She has become fluent enough to co-author A Spicy Touch - Family Favourites from Noorbanu Nimji’s Kitchen, the fourth self-published (and best-selling) cookbook of her long-time friend and mentor. “Muslim cooks on Kerala’s Malabar coast use mainly chile powder, turmeric and salt in their cooking,” says Anderson, who recently launched with photographer Pauli-Ann Carriere, to document their extensive culinary road trips through south India over the past few years. “With all the seafood on Kerala’s coast, cooks also add ground coriander because they like its hint of lemon. Pepper is the signature finishing note here because this is where it grows – along with cardamom – in the Cardamom Hills. In neighbouring Tamilnadu, we saw lots of fennel and asafoetida. In the north there’s a lot more cumin. Saffron grows in Kashmir. Turmeric is ubiquitous and pan-Indian. Chiles are tiny and hot in the south. Cinnamon and cloves give warmth to garam masalas.” Fortunately we have access to great ingredients here in Calgary, so you’re well equipped if you want to start your next dinner – or breakfast, or dessert – with a masala.

Noorbanu Nimji’s Garam Masala If you know someone who roasts and grinds their own garam masala, make friends with them. (Or learn to make your own.) Garam masala is a warm spice blend, more cinnamon-heavy than curry powder. This is Noorbanu Nimji’s version, from A Spicy Touch by Nimji and Karen Anderson. “Broken cinnamon sticks will be fine, but it’s usually cassia from Vietnam which is strong like cinnamon hearts and cinnamon buns,” says Anderson. “Sri Lankan cinnamon is just a warm tone and amalgamator in the background. You can use regular cinnamon sticks – your masala won’t be as subtle, but it’ll still be tasty.”


1/2 c. cinnamon sticks 2 T. green cardamom pods 1 T. black peppercorns 1 T. cloves 1 t. grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Place the cinnamon, cardamom, black peppercorns and cloves on a baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes. Let them cool to room temperature, then place them in a spice grinder along with the nutmeg and grind to a fine powder. Store in an airtight container in a dark place.

City Palate March April 2018  
City Palate March April 2018  

The Flavour of Calgary’s Food Scene - The Travel Issue