The Scent of Zanzibar

Garam Masala Spice Mix

Garam Masala

There are as many versions of this spice mix as there are home cooks in India. Untoasted prior to grinding, this highly aromatic recipe from cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey lends potency to stews, curries, and fried snacks like samosas. "Garam," which means "hot," refers to the combination of spices, which are thought to have body-warming properties in Ayurvedic medicine.Ingalls Photography

Taking a stroll one afternoon in a posh area of my native city, Cuttack, my nose picked up a maddening smell in the air. After walking around frantically I zeroed in on the source. The alluring smell originated from a sophisticated European restaurant—a forbidden place ​for a poor student like me. Those were the pre-independence days of India, when the British ruled the country. Unable to control my desire, I ventured toward the door of that stylish building. Just as I was trying to peep through the glass door, a liveried guard curtseyed a polite salute and opened the door to show me in.

At that very moment there was ample time for me to beat a safe retreat, but the maddening aroma that grew stronger and stronger sucked me in. Propelled by some unknown force, I proceeded until I found myself seated at a neatly laid out table.

A turbaned waiter rushed forth to my table, obviously to take orders. Without the slightest hesitation, I ordered. “One plate of that dish that smells so overwhelming around this place, please.”

“You mean mutton korma?" The elderly waiter cast a queer look upon me and enquired, “But that is very expensive. Can you afford to pay for it? ”

“Can I buy a small portion of it? One rupee's worth? I have only one rupee in my pocket”.

The man’s eyes, for some reason, seemed to melt like ice as he surveyed me from head to toe. Then he left me alone for some time before returning with a bowlful of mutton curry. Serving the contents on a plate the man put the bill before me and said, “You have to pay only twelve annas (three quarters of a rupee). Now, my son, enjoy the taste! We use a special garam masala imported from Zanzibar to lend an exceptional flavor to this meat recipe.”

I took my first bite of a korma whose exotic aroma I would never forget.