Masala – Everyday Indian Curry Paste

Indian restaurants in the western world have brought about a drastic conceptual change in the way people decipher Indian recipes – particularly the “curry”. Curry has transformed from being healthy & brothy to oily and thick. How many of you avoid restaurant food on those days when you desire light dinner and donâ€t want to ogle at the pool of oil, which will welcome you when you order curry? As much as Indian food opens your appetite and makes you want to eat more, I m sure most of you would be eating the non traditional version of curry at restaurants,feeling sluggish, thereby putting it off on certain days. I do not intend to dismiss restaurant curry as devilish but itâ€s a far cry from what home-style Indian version is. Even though I love thick, creamy restaurant curries with all my heart, I will certainly not categorize it as something I want to cook in my home daily or healthy. So for all of you who share curry love with me, I decided to post the basic Indian curry paste or masala in this post – the way we Indians make it in our homes – sans the calories & full of taste!

Onions Tomatoes & Garlic – The Veg Trio

Masala” is a very generic term used to describe any blend of spices in Indian cooking. Masala can be dry or wet, chunky or smooth, hot or mild, thick or brothy. In curry making it is a pasty, spice mixture, which forms the base. You add water or broth to the masala and make a ‘sauce’ or ‘curryâ€. Curry is not a dish by itself in India, it is a sauce. You prefix the name of meat or vegetable before “curry” to derive the name of the dish…chicken curry, potato curry, cauliflower etc.

Chili, Coriander & Turmeric Powder – The Spice Trio

Traditional home-style north Indian masala is not cream laden, not made with curry powder, does not have cashew or almond pastes & is not silky smooth in texture. It is chunky, healthy & light to eat. The way onions, peppers & celery start any stew or soup in the western cuisine, the Indian masala has equivalent trio of onions, tomatoes & garlic or OTG.The basic trio of spices being coriander, turmeric & red chili powder which lend it the distinct consistency, color & heat. The beautiful, deep orangish-red color is from the combination of red from chili & yellow from turmeric. This color depends on the quality of spices used and the slow cooking.In everyday cooking,Masala is not churned in food blenders or pureed through a sieve, it is cooked on low heat so that the onions & tomatoes soften but do not become mushy, and the natural sugars in them are caramelized. Garam Masala & Amchoor (dry mango powder) are added to masala to give it smoky and sour tastes respectively. Though rare,  but sometimes, addition of both these items depends on what is it that you are making curry with. As an example, I wont add both of these when making a fish curry, garam masala will overpower the mild taste of fish & citrus will be a better addition than amchoor. I hope you get an idea of what I m trying to say.

This masala has a lot of uses, you can whisk it in boiling water while making rice for an instant curried flavor, use it as spread on tortillas, buns or wraps, mix it with some mayo & make a curried dip, beat with yogurt, mix some veggies & make a side to the main meal. I even use it as a pasta sauce sometimes ..I m weird 🙂 Another way which I absolutely love this masala is on top of triangle paratha  – absolute bliss! Or maybe devise your own way of eating it & let me know.

Please note that this recipe does not substitute the whole spices in Indian cooking.This recipe is to be used as a base in curry making.

Ingredients: – [Makes about 1 cup, can be doubled]

  • 4 tbsp mustard/olive/canola oil
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onions
  • 3/4 tsp cumin seeds
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced (We like masala more garlicky than usual, adjust as per liking)
  • 2 tbsp minced fresh ginger
  • 1 cup finely chopped tomatoes (slightly sour)
  • 4 tsp coriander powder
  • 4 tsp red chili powder/cayenne  (We like masala hot , adjust quantity to tolerance depending on mild or hot you want the sauce)
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp amchoor (dry mango powder, available in Indian stores)
  • 1tsp salt

Method: –

  • In a heavy bottomed pan, add the oil and heat on high up till you see ripples on the surface.If using mustard oil, you will need to heat it till its smoking to do away the raw smell.
  • Reduce heat to medium.Add the finely chopped onion and cook them till golden brown. About 6-8 minutes.
  • Next, add the cumin seeds, minced garlic & ginger and cook for 1-2 minutes till you start smelling the aroma.
  • Reduce the heat to low and add the tomatoes next along with chilli, coriander, and turmeric powder. Cook this masala on low heat till the oil starts separating from the mix along the sides of the pan. About 10-12 minutes. If you see masala sticking to the bottom of pan, add some water. Cook thoroughly to reduce water. This slow cooking is very important to develop flavors and color of the paste, please do not rush.Allow the masala to reduce till it acquires beautiful reddish to brown color.
  • Remove the pan from heat and mix in the salt, garam masala & amchoor.
  • Allow the masala to cool and transfer to jars for storing. The paste sits for up to 5 days refrigerated and 2 months in the freezer without losing flavor.
  • How to Use:- Whenever you want to use this masala for making curry, add the desired quantity of water to it,check the seasoning & bring to a boil. Next add the meats or vegetables, boiled beans, lentils and cook covered or in pressure cooker till tender.
Notes: –
  1. Although you can freeze this masala and save for later use, in Indian homes, it is prepared whenever needed. I recommend making a fresh batch everytime too.
  2. You can add anything and everything under the sun to the basic masala from coconut milk to cream to tamarind paste to yogurt to flavor it up depending on what you want to use it for.

70 thoughts on “Masala – Everyday Indian Curry Paste

  1. Finally, I am so ready for this. For many years now, I’ve been enjoying restaurant-masala. [Well, my Indian friend left California to fill a post at the University of Indiana…he just wrote recently, “Please send me students.”] Needless to say, haven’t had home-cooked Indian meal in a decade.

    Thank you, thank you so much. I’m just missing the mango powder!

  2. Tanvi, this looks like everyone’s keeper for sure. I always enjoy you take time to introduce ingredients. Just simple spices/powders become a beauty in your hand.

  3. You said it Tanvi. Indian curries is not so rich and creamy all the times. The home cooked meals are healthier and lighter. Many times I wished I could literally shout and say this to everybody.

  4. Hi Tanvi,
    I love the aroma and flavor or mustard oil and cook in it often especially parathas. I am glad to see that you mention mustard oil in your recipes. Love the colors of your pictures too.

  5. A great post to dismiss all the misconceptions about Indian curries. I loved the photographs and those cute wooden spoons. Way to go Tanvi!! 🙂

  6. Great Post Tanvi! Very informative…
    It’s amazing how we all have our own ‘perfect’ masala blend! Even the most basic, simple, mild masala can transform any vegetable or grain! That’s the true beauty of Indian cooking 🙂

  7. The first thing that striked me was the lovely color of the masala. So beautiful. Er, wish I had a top in that color…lol Seriously, that’s an interesting read on curry and you nailed it right! I admit I’m totally ignorant when it comes to making a general masala paste to be used as a base for many recipes. Sounds handy!

    Btw, loved those tiny wooden spoons. Girl, where do you find such treasure..?!!

  8. This was a really helpful post! I’ve just recently started to dabble in making Indian food, and I love understanding the basics properly. Thanks for the post! I happen to have most of these ingredients on hand now!

  9. Faith (An Edible Mosaic) – I’m Faith and I blog at where I share my recipe collection of international favorites and updated American classics, with an emphasis on seasonal dishes. I focus on real foods that sustain body and mind, bring people together, and make a house a home. Come check out my mosaic of recipes.
    Faith on said:

    Wow Wow. Love the pictures Tanvi! You have the eye my friend 🙂 This post is very helpful. Love your tips.

  10. Very interesting post. In my husband’s family, there is no “base masala”. Every dish has its own very different masala, but I know that a lot of Indian restaurants do work with a base masala. I can see why this would be a great time save.
    *kisses* HH

  11. I never even knew I could make this at home! Wow, the pictures are amazing and what a wonderful and simple recipe. Now I just got to get in the kitchen and start cooking it! So glad you found my blog so I could find yours. thanks for the sweet comments and right back at ya! I am loving your recipes, photos and writing style!

  12. Kelly @ Inspired Edibles – San Francisco Bay Area – Kelly Mulcair is an evidence based holistic nutritionist living in Northern California
    Kelly on said:

    Beautiful – I use masala frequently and in fact, just had some out the other night for a tandoori sauce. But I’ve certainly never made my own… this is great – you’re amazing!

  13. I think the chili powder I’ve been using is wrong…it’s used to make chili beans, and has garlic, oregano and such in it. What is in the chili powder that you use? Does it sell in the US by another name?

    • Hi Frances,
      Thanks for dropping by.
      The chili powder I use (& is used in curries) is not flavored with anything – it is pure, ground, dried red chilies.I get my batch from indian stores.
      If you wish to buy from American grocery stores, buy cayenne pepper powder – it is most real in terms of heat & color as far as a substitute is concerned.
      I hope it helps!

  14. Delicious Everyday – Freelance food photographer & stylist. Portfolio at Vegetarian food blogger at Delicious Everyday
    Jennifer (Delicieux) on said:

    Gorgeous Tanvi, this looks like such a wonderful curry paste! I just love your photos too with the spices, so stunning!

  15. I hate how Indian restaurants load up their curries with ghee, especially when I know from experience how light and refreshing and HEALTHY they can be when made at home! Thanks for this masala tutorial! I can’t wait to try it!

  16. Sawsan Abu Farha @ Chef in disguise – Http:// – In love with the Middle Eastern culture and cuisine. Sharing easy authentic Middle Eastern recipes is my passion
    thefooddoctor on said:

    Thank you SO much Tanvi for this post
    I am bookmarking it for sure and going hunting for mango powder…I really can’t wait to try this

  17. What a beautiful, back-to-basics recipe. This will become a staple in my diet when I start school again in the fall. Looks delicious 🙂

  18. ginger and scotch – Dubai – I’m Sandy (aka “Ginger”), married to “Scotch” (not his real name). I believe that it’s not just noodles we are creating, but memories, traditions, and a sense of pride. I believe in slowing down, relishing time spent with our children and loved ones, and bonding through shared noodle-making experiences.
    ginger and scotch on said:

    What great information you provided on masala – I can’t wait to try this recipe out at home. Thanks!

  19. Angie@Angie's Recipes – Angie's Recipes is an interactive blog dedicated to sharing yummy & creative recipes, helpful cooking hints and tips. Enjoy your visit and spread the word!
    Angie@Angiesrecipes on said:

    Your curry paste looks authentic and delish. Love your wooden spoons. So cute.

  20. You know, I’ve been cookign Inidan food for a long time and although I’ve come across curry powder, I’ve never come across a paste before. Very handy though. Lovely bright photos as well Tanvi!

  21. Drop dead gorgeous photos! I love that mortar and pestle. Thanks for the background on curries. Although I have to admit that I love the rich, creamy, fattening curries in Americanized Indian restaurants, your recipe does sound delicious. I could see how a really flavorful curry base could be just as tasty without adding all that fat.

  22. I couldn’t agree more. I love those restaurant thick curry sauce but afraid to eat them too often. Now this is a much more healthful daily version that I can enjoy more often. Love to learn all these Indian spices and ingredients. 🙂 My hubby is a fan of curry and I better make this soon. Thanks for sharing.

    Also, thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving your sweet comment. I always appreciate it. Hope you’ll visit again soon. Take care.

  23. Gorgeous pictures Tanvi. Hopped over from my guest post. Glad that you liked it. Hope your husband you love this spicy good dish

  24. I love eating at Indian restaurants but only a couple of time I have made my own Indian dishes. These sounds like a keeper and a new beginning for my experiments.
    Your photos are stunning!

  25. I remember how eye-opening it was to me when I first heard an Indian chef talk about how most Indian restaurants in America do not cook like Indians cook at home. What he meant was exactly what you said — the overbearing use of butter and cream in so many Indian restaurant dishes gives the wrong impressions to Westerners about what true Indian food is like. I don’t know how this piling on of the fat started. But I sure wish restaurants would use more restraint. I think their customers would greatly appreciate it, too.

  26. Thanks for this post and for the gorgeous pictures along with it!
    I have developped a total aversion for ready-made powdered garam masala, which seems to be the only spice used by most Indian restaurants in my region…
    This masala paste looks delicious!

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    Toni on said:

    Tani, you’ve done a fantastic post on the ‘western perception of curry’. I feel so helpless when I’m told that someone thinks that throwing in a spoonful of curry powder makes a curry, I decided to start teaching Indian cooking. And I have been thanked many times over by my students for demystefying the curry! And I absolutely love your food images!

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  34. parckehomepage – Interests in multiple things, but especially a peaceful, prosperous living. I am an artist, humanity advocate. I have years of experience in palliative hospice care. I enjoy art, Powwows, contemporary Christian music, humanities. I am Christian hearted, which doesn't make me your doormat either. Hensci! Mvto! Ronald Parcke-Wms P.S. I share in a multi-cultured heritage and enjoy them. I know more about my German-Engish, and Muscogee(Mvscogee) heritage than the Africentric side which as many know the US/States governments ruined that for us, but I'm over it since you can't hold all those dead folks accountable, and the 21st Century government, in general practice aren't that worse anymore...a different time and people now; life goes on.
    Ronald on said:

    Finally I found a true homemade recipe with rich flavor. I think the problem with most cookbooks, the product outcome tends to be weaker in flavor than what one is used to in most homemade cooking. Please give us more. I remember years ago, I would eat at a neighbor’s house who I would work for sometimes and his wife would cook very tasty foods, and not over powering, but not weak. Her cooking had a balance in flavors, and sometimes you want a little extra richness in flavor, too, and she would do that. as well.

  35. parckehomepage – Interests in multiple things, but especially a peaceful, prosperous living. I am an artist, humanity advocate. I have years of experience in palliative hospice care. I enjoy art, Powwows, contemporary Christian music, humanities. I am Christian hearted, which doesn't make me your doormat either. Hensci! Mvto! Ronald Parcke-Wms P.S. I share in a multi-cultured heritage and enjoy them. I know more about my German-Engish, and Muscogee(Mvscogee) heritage than the Africentric side which as many know the US/States governments ruined that for us, but I'm over it since you can't hold all those dead folks accountable, and the 21st Century government, in general practice aren't that worse anymore...a different time and people now; life goes on.
    Ronald on said:

    By the way, thank you Tanvi for contributing this recipe, and your insights on this cultural matter of an aspect of how traditional Indian foods are done. Also, I think it’s better than “sinfully delicious” since that literally means ‘to miss the mark;’ well, I think it’s heavenly delicious.

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  37. Hi… ur pics re lovely and cant wait to try your recipes… keep up the good work. can u please what garam masala u r using in your kitchen.. or u use the home made ones.. if yes, can u please post your homemade garam masala recipe of u don mind..

    • Thank you Shihan. I alternate between homemade and store bought. I usually use badshah brand rajwadi garam masala if buying.

  38. I am thankful your blog is here. I was looking for a recipe on how to make the paste (since I don’t stock them in my kitchen) and there sooooo many on the net that seems way too complicated with too many ingredients. I’m really glad I found yours…. And it turns out I have most of the ingredients already. Keep up the blog!

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  40. I will soon be cooking for someone who is on a very strict no-fat diet, and I am wondering whether it is possible to make a decent masala paste such as this one (which I love and use often, thank you!) without the oil? Any guidance you can offer as to if it will be necessary to adjust the recipe further (than simply trying it with the oil omitted) would be wonderfully helpful – I’m inexpert at both Indian cooking and low-fat cooking!

    • I would slow roast the onions, garlic and tomatoes separately. Grind the onion & garlic with ginger and transfer to a pan on low heat. Add the powdered spices & sauce for 2-3 minutes till the mixture is heated up. Add the tomatoes and saute for few minutes more until the masala starts coming together (which means getting thick & changing color).Once that stage is reached, add whatever protein/vegetable you are using along with stock or enough water. Cover & let cook.
      Having said all that, I have not really tried it myself but I used to see my mum fire roasting onions & tomatoes often to get those concentrated flavors & aroma. Hopefully the same technique should work here with roasting onions & tomatoes beforehand.

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  42. Thanks Tanvi, I love trying out new recipes, but I hate it when it says curry powder, or curry paste, as part of the ingredients. This is a wonderful way to keep masalas on hand for a quick cook up. We (goans) have our spice mixes which are refrigerated and used when cooking some dishes. most of these are family owned recipes that get passed down.

  43. when you would like to cook a “chicken curry” would you sear the chicken meat, add the masala and water and cook for let us say half an hour ? Or how would you do it ? Maybe also add some other ingredients ?

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