At any given moment, there is a gullible south Asian person around the world, who parts with his or her hard-earned money to buy what they believe is a magical uplifter of flavours in their cooking — garam masala. Now, I must disclose that I am biased against this particular mix of powdered spices, because it is, more often than not, a lazy way of distracting the eater away from the undercooked garlic, and overly tart tomatoes, with a culinary cruise missile made up of mace, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom et al. But, if you aren’t convinced with a purely subjective culinary argument, let me give you another reason why you should not buy garam masala.
When you buy a packet of powdered spices at a store, what you are buying is an anticlimactic reverse flavour bomb — one whose countdown begins the moment you cut open the air tight packaging. In a few weeks’ time, the flavour bomb turns into sand. The thing with buying garam masala from a store is that the inexorable battle to keep an ingredient flavourful against the forces of climate, microbes, and time, is a hard one to win. And when you are in Chennai, your powdered spices are undergoing the experience batsmen did, when facing the pace quartet of the West Indies in the 1980s (without helmets). Powdered spices lose their volatile flavour oils far quicker than whole spices do, and unless you have the same expensive machinery that ensures air-tight packaging in the factory that produced your garam masala, at your home, you are likely sprinkling sand on your butter chicken.
It has taken ingenious human creativity over the years to come up with different ways to extend the shelf life of any kind of food. Dehydration was probably the earliest of techniques. Black pepper, which is essentially the sun-dried version of the fresh green pepper from the vine, and red chilies, are the better known examples. Refrigeration is another trick we use. In general, all biochemical activity (such as the decibel levels of the battle cries of invading fungi and bacteria) slows down at lower temperatures. Refrigerating masalas will extend their shelf life by a few more weeks. But then, you run into another problem — the diabolical genius of fast-moving consumer goods companies. They refuse to sell you masalas in any size less than 100g, which, unless you are running a biriyani joint out of your kitchen window, is hard to use up in a few weeks. In fact, one of the reasons why restaurant food has more intense flavours (in addition to a lax concern for your arteries), is that they either make garam masala fresh every day, or use up store bought masalas on the same day that they are opened.
So, at the very least, stop wasting money, buy whole spices, and use a coffee grinder to make fresh garam masala in small quantities. If you are going to make your food wear a school uniform, make sure it’s new, clean and pressed.