The “Garm Masala” of Old Lahore
As a student many years ago, I had the opportunity to go to school in Lahore, Pakistan as part of my graduate language studies. Lahore is the quintessential South Asian city and the center of Muslim culture in the subcontinent. The exact date of its founding is unknown, but some historians claim it was inhabited even 4000 years ago. It became the first major city in South Asia that was captured by Muslims advancing out of Afghanistan in the 11th century and has been a Muslim city and cultural center ever since. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was for a while the capital of the extensive Mughal Empire and subsequently ruled by the Sikh kings in the 18th century, the British in the 19th and 20th, and eventually became the capital of Punjab Province of present-day Pakistan when it gained its independence from British India in 1947. Today it is a renowned cultural center with some of the best-preserved Islamic architecture anywhere in the world with universities, Muslim publishing houses, the arts, and is home to Pakistan’s film making industry “Lollywood.” As a student, it was a great place to first experience South Asian culture and cuisine.
Lahore, of course, is memorable for its spice bazaar and its “Mughali” style of cooking that developed in the 16th-19th centuries across northern India and is based largely on the spice blends that gives the dishes their unique flavors. As a student living in that culture, I was first introduced to the Mughali cuisine by my cook Mr. Khuda Baksh who was an older gentleman with very few teeth but a great sense of humor and a master cook. Baksh was determined that I was going to learn how to cook in addition to learning the Urdu language. Part of that process was to learn how to blend Baksh’s secret recipe for “Garm Masala” that I am divulging here for the first time! Garm Masala is an Urdu phrase that simply means “warm spices” and is the basis for many South Asian dishes but is blended with different ingredients depending on the skills of the cook. Baksh over the years had of course developed his own blend of Garm Masala that he claimed had made him “famous.”
My cooking lessons started off with a trip to the Anarkali Spice Bazaar in the old city of Lahore. Baksh was a frequent shopper here and all the shop keepers called out to invite us into their shops for tea and a chat. But not that day, Baksh was on a mission to a small spice shop deep within the bazaar that carried only the freshest spices called for in Baksh’s Garm Masala recipe.
And here we were! The shopkeeper’s eyes lit up when he saw Baksh coming and he gave him a wide berth as Baksh leaned in over each spice bin and drew his hand over the spices to take in the scent. Baksh claimed he could discern the country of origin, region, and harvest time of each spice by just sniffing the complexities of their aroma. Master!
These are the spices we bought that day contained in Baksh’s famous Garm Masala recipe, that are all available from Spice Your Life.
- 3 tbsp coriander
- 2 tbsp cumin
- 2 tbsp cardamom
- 2 tbsp black Urfa Biber pepper
- 1 tsp cloves
- 2 tbsp cinnamon