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Cocktails and Cuisine

By Rajni Hatti

Masala Demystified

Ever wonder how each South Asian curry gets its own distinctive fragrance and flavor? Most of these curries are made using a simple technique: starting with a masala paste. A masala paste forms the base of any “wet” vegetable or meat dish—a dish that has a gravy. There are many variations of masala paste, giving each South Asian dish its own special style. A masala paste might include any of a wide variety of ingredients such as onions, tomatoes, coconut, garlic, nuts or spices.

Learning the technique is easy. The masala paste ingredients are first blended together to form a thick paste. The paste is cooked in pan, usually with a little oil, and vegetables or meats are added with some water and simmered until cooked. You don’t need any fancy equipment for this technique – a blender and a large pan are all you need to create a delicious dish right in your own kitchen!

Here are two of my favorite vegetarian dishes that are made with a masala paste. These are easy dishes that come together quickly – great for a weeknight meal!

Vegetable Korma (Vegetables in a Creamy Cashew Curry)
Makes 4 servings

Korma is a traditional dish in Mughal cuisine and can be made both as a vegetarian or non-vegetarian dish. The Mughal Empire ruled in South Asia beginning in the 16th century and introduced rich and decadent items such as nuts, dried fruits, butter and cream to South Asian cuisine.

Masala Paste
1 medium garlic clove, chopped
¼ cup raw cashews
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 medium Serrano green chili, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon ginger, peeled and grated
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup water

2 teaspoons vegetable or canola oil
1 medium onion, diced
1½ cups green beans, chopped into 1-inch pieces
2 cups potatoes, diced
1½ cups carrots, peeled and diced
½ cup green peas
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon salt, adjust to taste
2 teaspoons tomato paste
¼ cup plain lowfat yogurt
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 cup water

1. Heat a small pan over low heat. Add first five ingredients of masala paste (garlic, cashews, red pepper, cumin and coriander) to the pan and stir occasionally for three to five minutes until spices begin to brown and give off an aroma. Let the mixture cool to room temperature.

2. Combine cooked ingredients for the masala paste with the remaining ingredients in a blender and grind to a fine paste. Add additional water if it is difficult to blend finely. Set aside.

3. Add oil to a large pan and heat over medium heat. Add onions and stir occasionally for five minutes until onions begin to brown.

4. Add vegetables, turmeric and salt, and mix to combine. Stir occasionally for three to four minutes until vegetables begin to soften. Add ¼ cup of water and cover pan with lid. Cook vegetables for about ten minutes until tender.

5. When vegetables are tender, add masala paste, tomato paste, yogurt, garam masala and one cup of water to pan and mix to combine.

6. Reduce to a low simmer and stir occasionally for three to five minutes until sauce thickens slightly.

Serving Suggestion: Serve with naan or chapatti.


Rajma (Red Kidney Bean Curry)
Makes 4 servings

This vegetarian dish originated in Punjab, a northern state in India. Kidney beans are an excellent source of protein and dietary fiber, making them an ideal ingredient in a vegetarian diet.

Masala Paste
1 large tomato, chopped into 2-inch pieces
½ of a medium onion, chopped into 2-inch pieces
1 medium Serrano green chili, roughly chopped
1 large garlic clove, roughly chopped
¼ cup water

1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
½ of a medium onion, diced
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 16-oz cans dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons sour cream
1½ teaspoons ginger, peeled and grated
1½ teaspoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1½ teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon salt, adjust to taste
¼ cup water
¼ cup cilantro, chopped

Photos by Rajni Hatti

1. Combine all of the ingredients for the masala paste in a blender and grind until finely puréed. Set aside.

2. Heat oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add onion, ground cumin and ground coriander and stir occasionally until spices begin to sizzle and give off an aroma.

3. Add the masala paste to the pan and mix to combine. Bring to a simmer for about five minutes to cook the paste.

4. Add kidney beans, sour cream and ginger. Mix to combine.

5. Add brown sugar, tomato paste, garam masala, salt and water. Add a little more water if the curry is too thick. Bring to a low simmer for about seven to ten minutes (curry will thicken slightly).

6. Garnish with cilantro.

Serving Suggestion: Serve with rice or chapatti.

Rajni Hatti teaches an Indian cooking series called "A Taste of India" in the greater Washington D.C. area, and is currently writing a cookbook that focuses on simple and delicious Indian cooking. Check out her website at to get free recipes, join her monthly newsletter and get a detailed look at cooking Indian cuisine. Rajni can be contacted at

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