Pop into any Indian kitchen in the morning and your nostrils will be assailed with aromas that make your mouth water. The appetizing smells are released by the oils in spices used in the cooking. The word 'Masala' refers to a spice. For example whole cloves are a masala.
Many north Indian dishes are flavored using a combination of dry spices that is widely known as garam masala. There are many versions of this, depending upon the availability of ingredients and individual taste.
A simple recipe for garam masala - take cloves, cinnamon, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, in equal volume. Grind all together in a mixer to a fine powder. Store in an airtight bottle in a cool dry place, away from sunlight. Lasts for more than 3 months without losing flavor.
Some of the more finicky cooks use the masalas in their whole or ‘shabut’ form. This can turn out to be very expensive, as the whole cloves or peppers are usually discarded while eating as they are too piquant / hot to taste. Of course, there are people I know who eat raw green chillies!
Other herbs used to flavor curries and pulaos are whole bay leaves, coriander leaves, ginger, garlic and curry leaves.