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What to do With Garam Masala — a Delicate Mumbai Rice Dish

By Bianca Husodo

The ingredients to chef Manogren Murugan Thevar’s blend of garam masala.
 
Gregory Woo
The ingredients to chef Manogren Murugan Thevar’s blend of garam masala.

Garam masala, a warm and pungent spice mixture, is ubiquitous in many an Indian dish. The typical garam masala is a combination of a lot of coriander and smaller amounts of cumin, cloves, black pepper and cinnamon. Other than high-achieving Indian home cooks, many tend to settle for ready-made bottled versions rather than grounding the fragrant seasoning from scratch. For Penang-born Indian chef Manogren Murugan Thevar, better known as chef Mano, mass-produced supermarket tubs won’t do.

Prior to opening his namesake contemporary Indian grill restaurant situated along the hip stretch of Keong Saik Road late last year, Thevar, whose culinary pedigree includes haute-cuisine temples Waku Ghin and Guy Savoy, decided to trace back his roots. He spent a month travelling in India, north to south, to fully immerse his palate in the country’s flavours. In Mumbai, the 29-year-old stumbled upon the berry pulao, a basmati rice-based dish that, albeit its likeness to the more popular biryani, he has never encountered Indian-inflected cuisines in Singapore.

“This is more delicate. Biryani is stronger and heavier,” Thevar compares. The linchpin to the dish, the chef later discovered, is its tailored garam masala mix. “Garam masala is five to six spices blended together for seasoning, usually used for curries,” he says. There’s no standard garam masala mix. Depending on what it’s used for, one can opt to customise its mixture. The best place to obtain garam masala’s spices in Singapore, according to Thevar, is at Mustafa Centre, Little India’s 24-hour retail emporium. “I use a mix of black cardamom and added in mace — a bit different from the traditional garam masala. Mine is not sharp, not mild either. There’s a lot of spices, but it has that balanced flavour.”

What Thevar strives to achieve in his garam masala and berry pulao renditions, or his overall take on Indian fare, is an inclusive sense of universality for the tastebuds. “People tend to associate Indian food with heaviness in spice and flavour,” he posits. “What we’re doing here is we turn it down a few notches so that everyone can try and eat.”

Below, Thevar’s two-part recipe starts with the making of his very own garam masala blend, before immersing it into his berry pulao.

Garam Masala

Ingredients

50 grams Black Cardamom
30 grams Star Anise
15 grams Green Cardamon
20 grams Cloves
5 grams Mace
20 grams Coriander Seeds
50 grams Cumin Seeds
5 Cinnamon Sticks
10 grams Salt
10 grams Crushed Black Pepper

Tung PhamChef Mano Thevar, stationed behind the open-kitchen counter of his namesake restaurant.
Chef Mano Thevar, stationed behind the open-kitchen counter of his namesake restaurant.
Tung PhamThe spices that are base to chef Mano Thevar’s own blend of garam masala.
The spices that are base to chef Mano Thevar’s own blend of garam masala.

Method

1. Lightly toast all spices.
2. Blend all spices and add in black pepper and salt.
3. Sieve to achieve a fine blend of garam masala.

Tung PhamChef Mano toasts the spices on a frying pan for a few minutes.
Chef Mano toasts the spices on a frying pan for a few minutes.
Tung PhamUsing a spice grinder, chef Mano Thevar blends the warm spices.
Using a spice grinder, chef Mano Thevar blends the warm spices.
Tung PhamFreshly grounded garam masala.
Freshly grounded garam masala.

Berry Pulao Rice

Serves approximately 10–15 pax

Ingredients

2.5 litres Water
20 grams Garam Masala
50 grams Fine Salt
50 grams Dried Cranberries
1.2 kilograms Basmati Rice
32 grams Ginger
80 grams Ghee
140 grams Spanish Red Onion
2 Deseeded Green Chillis

Method

1. Boil water with salt and garam masala.
2. Add basmati rice and cook till 70–80 percent cooked and strain.
3. Add ghee, saute onion, ginger, green chilli and dried cranberries.

Tung PhamChef Mano Thevar lightly stirs the boiled rice and spice with a spoon.
Chef Mano Thevar lightly stirs the boiled rice and spice with a spoon.
Tung PhamChef Mano Thevar liberally sprinkles dried cranberries into the strained mix.
Chef Mano Thevar liberally sprinkles dried cranberries into the strained mix.

4. On the bottom of a pot, spread out sauteed ingredients and sprinkle garam masala evenly.
5. Add cooked basmati rice about ⅓ of the amount and spread ghee and garam masala.
6. Repeat the rice layering process two more times and cover with foil.
7. Steam in oven for 30 minutes then let cool for 20 minutes.
8. After slowly stirring, pour the berry pulao rice on plates to serve.

Tung PhamAlternative to baking in an oven, chef Mano Thevar suggests heating small portions in a pan.
Alternative to baking in an oven, chef Mano Thevar suggests heating small portions in a pan.
Tung PhamAfter plating, powder fine-cut chives on top of the rice.
After plating, powder fine-cut chives on top of the rice.
Tung PhamThe final dish: chef Mano Thevar’s garam masala-bolstered berry pulao rice.
The final dish: chef Mano Thevar’s garam masala-bolstered berry pulao rice.
Visit chef Mano Thevar at Thevar, 9 Keong Saik Road.