Masala magic in good taste
As Indian restaurants have multiplied in the West, the flavors they present are becoming an everyday passion. The pressure's on to find ways to create popular dishes quickly and easily at home. For the purist, it's a challenge ― there's no escaping a long list of spices to be found, ground, and toasted. For the realist, one authentic abbreviation is garam masala (roughly, "warm-flavored mixture"), an Indian-style spice blend that is increasingly available in supermarkets. Each brand ― like each region and cook in India― has its own palette of ingredients. Most I've sampled bear aromatic evidence of cinnamon, cloves, and cumin, which Indians describe as "warm" spices and use in savory dishes.
One garam masala-reliant dish I've become very fond of is butter chicken. It's mild enough for the timid and sufficiently intriguing for the curious. When I asked my friend Ranjan Dey, a chef who hails from Calcutta, for the recipe, his litany of spices included extensive grinding. I tried his way first, got the gist, put more faith in the garam masala, and got butter chicken on the table in half an hour. You might do it in less.