How Hyderabadi biryani taught me not all of India’s garam masalas are the same

How Hyderabadi biryani taught me not all of India’s garam masalas are the same

The ‘hot spice’ mix ubiquitous to India changes flavour profile based on geography, taste

Classic Hyderabadi biryani
Classic Hyderabadi biryani. Picture used for illustrative purpose only Image Credit: Shutterstock

“Don’t put that in,” bellowed my husband from across the kitchen a few months ago. Turns out he’d been spying on my biryani-making technique, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. (As a food lover and Hyderabadi spouse to boot, I wasn’t offended by the interest even though the yell and my own resultant manoeuvres almost gave me whiplash.) Turns out, the one thing you do NOT EVER do when making the famous Hyderabadi rice-and-mutton/chicken dish is add star anise. It’s not part of the garam masala group used in the city.

Garam masala
What goes into garam masala - India's famous spice mix? The answer depends on who you ask.

This was surprising to me, even though in retrospect, I suppose it shouldn’t have been. I grew up with one foot in the kitchen; a necessity because my mum’s reaction to a cooking aversion was to have me know my way around a stove. I grew up hopping cities as my father’s job carted us about the tea-producing states in India. Our cuisine was just as scattered. The influences came and left with each city, with each cook, and by the time I was 12 the one thing I knew how to do was experiment. It was also at this time I learned what garam masala was – by asking the then visiting chef. Garam masala – or hot spice as it translates into in English – is a mix of spices that goes into most Indian dishes. The amount that is added and the moment of introduction however varies depending on the recipe and the taste you are hoping to generate.

The notes that stayed

In my young mind, the ingredients that stuck were cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black pepper and bay leaf. I would mix together various quantities of these, roast them till they yielded a warm aroma and grind them on a motor pestle and later, a spice grinder to let the flavours breathe. A test-fail-try again method combined with a ‘this is what it should smell like’ attitude helped me hone in on the right taste. (I still couldn’t give you exact measurements, this is a by-the-feel style of cooking.)

Later, when it became easier to just get a readymade concoction out of box, I was left wanting. It was a taste, flavour and smell profile that just didn’t fit. I would eventually get used to this change – but grudgingly, heading back to my own methods of masala creation when I had the time.

It took some 20-odd years and a brush with my husband’s flavour of food to realise that garam masala changes shape with every state, with every home, with every palette. While the garam masala in the north, for instance, may have dried red chillies, in the south, it's nutmeg that makes an appearance.

- Karishma H. Nandkeolyar, Parenting Editor

It took some 20-odd years and a brush with my husband’s flavour of food to realise that garam masala changes shape with every state, with every home, with every palette.

While the garam masala in the north, for instance, may have dried red chillies, in the south, it's nutmeg that makes an appearance.

This brings me back to the ‘Biryani Debacle’. When I bought a generic packet of khara, or solid, ‘garam masala’ it had a number of spices I wouldn’t associate with this particular mix: there were cumin and fennel seeds, star anise and nutmeg. But having seen the partner use this blend for other dishes, I decided to create one using this hodgepodge myself.

Bad idea. So apparently there are four things used to infuse flavour into a Hyderabadi biryani – this is a family recipe before biryani connoisseurs get upset –  black cumin seeds, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. The star anise is a big no-no.

Spice box from
The kitchen spice box, favoured in many Indian homes Image Credit:

The biryani was eaten with a reluctant enthusiasm.

It also was the beginning of a lot of Googling, for how else do you learn the flavour profiles of various spots; how to do begin to taste the authenticity of place on your plate?

Months later, I am happy to report, I get a passing grade; my version of the biryani is 70 per cent authentic, he says.

Variations from across India

We asked foodies from the country what goes into their own special spice mixture; here's what we found out. (The amounts of each spice varies depending on household and taste.)

Bengali garam masala: cinnamon, green cardamom and cloves. Try this recipe.

Tamil garam masala: Coriander, pepper, cumin seeds, cloves, fennel seeds, mace, star anise, cardamom, cinnamon stick and bay leaves

Kerala garam masala: Fennel seeds, green cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, mace, bay leaves and black pepper. Here's a recipe that brings it all together!

Kashmiri garam masala: Cumin seeds, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon stick, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, fennel seeds and bay leaves. Try this recipe.

Gujarati garam masala: Bay leaf, star anise, mace, black cardamom, cinnamon buds, black pepper corns, cinnamon, cloves, kalpasi, shah jeera and coriander seeds

On the spice route

India has always been a major player on the spice route; the use of black pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, and cardamom for instance can be traced back centuries.

In fact, the medical writings of Charaka (1st century) and Sushruta II (2nd century) referenced spices and herbs, says McCormick Science Institute on its website, a practice followed even today. Turmeric is even now recommended as an anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant ingredient across the world. According to a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, turmeric derivative curcumin, a polyphenol, has been shown to target multiple signalling molecules while also demonstrating activity at the cellular level, which has helped to support its multiple health benefits. It has been shown to benefit inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, pain, and to help in the management of inflammatory and degenerative eye conditions.

The different kinds of garam masalas from across India from
The different kinds of garam masalas from across India, impart different flavours to dishes Image Credit:

However, while much research has been done on substances from turmeric, their health effects remain uncertain due to the instability of the compounds which easily evolve into other substances, claims another study.

Some positives of these spices

Cinnamon: Anti-inflammatory, works to increase good HDL cholesterol levels, increases rate of metabolism

Green cardamom: Anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties

Cloves: Rich source of antioxidants, natural pain reliever

Coriander seeds: Rich in vitamin K, C, B along with antioxidants and other minerals which are all beneficial skin and hair health, good source of antioxidants, lower cholesterol.

Pepper: Rich source of antioxidants, anti-inflammatory

Cumin seeds: Rich source of iron, antioxidants, promote weight loss and improve blood sugar control and cholesterol

Fennel seeds: Contains anethole, which aids digestive heath, including bloating and constipation

Mace: Keeps the gut healthy

Star anise: Not only does it aid in boosting the immune system but it also helps treat digestive ailments

Bay leaves: Has antibacterial properties, helps in regulating blood sugar

Kalpasi, or black stone flower: Good for skin and inflammation, helps suppress respiratory disorders

(These beneficial properties have been compiled from trusted internet sources.)

In India what grows where?

Spice growing states of India
Spice growing states of India Image Credit: Spice Board of India

Homemade Hyderabadi biryani

Homemade Hyderabadi biryani
Homemade Hyderabadi biryani Image Credit: Karishma Nandkeolyar/Gulf News


1kg skinless chicken, cut into pieces

2 cups basmati rice

3/4th cup ghee

Salt, to taste

  • 6 green cardamom
  • 2 black cardamom
  • 6 cloves
  • 2 one-inch cinnamon sticks
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 pinches, nutmeg powdered

2 tsp black cumin

5 medium onions, sliced

4tsp ginger paste

4 tsp garlic paste

2 tsp red chili powder

2 cups yoghurt

2 tbsp lemon juice

½ tsp saffron

2 tbsp milk

1/3 cup mint, chopped

1/3 cup coriander leaves, chopped


For the rice

1. Soak rice in water for 30 minutes before draining it and replenishing the water (enough for a rolling boil). Add half the garam masala, salt and black cumin. Bring to a boil until rice is almost cooked. Drain. Keep aside.

2. Dissolve the saffron in warm milk, then mix it into half the yoghurt. Keep this aside.

For the chicken

1. Heat ghee in deep-bottomed pot. Add sliced onions and fry until brown. Remove half and keep on a paper towel so it soaks up the oil.

2. In the pot, add remaining garam masala and black cumin and fry over medium heat till it begins to crackle, then add ginger-garlic paste and red chili powder.

3. After stir frying for a few seconds, once the smell of raw ginger-garlic has left, add the chicken and brown.

4. Add half the yoghurt and a little water (2/3rd a cup). Bring to a boil, then simmer until chicken is cooked. Add lemon juice, taste for seasoning.


1. In the pot with chicken add half the mint and coriander, then the rest of the yoghurt.

2. Cover with rice, followed by the fried onions, mint and coriander.

3. Cover with a tight lid and cook on slow flame until rice has cooked. (10-15 mins)

4. Mix and serve hot with raita.

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