Bookmark and Share

Hello, Denise, can I borrow some garam masala?

“Massive Debt Credit Card Inc. customer service department: This is Denise, may I help you.”

“Well, yes, Denise, you can. I just received a bill from your employers for a service charge. The bill is for three dollars and thirty-five cents and payment was due last week — three days before I received the bill in the mail.”

“No problem sir, we can delete any late fee you may have been charged. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

“Well, Denise, that is the lesser of my problems. You see, I have not had a Massive Debt credit card for nearly two years. I believe if you check your records, you will see I paid my balance and all additional, sneaky hidden charges and cancelled the card almost two years ago.”

Thus begins what is an increasingly common interaction for the American consumer.

It has nothing to do with a false charge on a nonexistent credit card. It could just as well concern a phone directory information request, or a customer service call to one of numerous corporations.

This interaction deals with one of the big bugaboos of our time — with outsourcing. The stuff which gives birth to political fever.

You see, despite her best efforts to conceal it — and I laud her for her accomplishment — “Denise” cannot completely hide her accent.

Her Indian accent.

That’s right: Massive Debt Credit Card Inc. has joined the rush to the Indian subcontinent, moving its telecom services to India. Denise, AKA Rani, has taken some intense language modification classes and is on the line with American customers from 1 to 9 a.m., Mumbai time.


It’s pretty clear: they are stealing all the great minimum wage, no-benefit jobs. And they are doing outstanding work (unless of course you attempt to get a phone number in a town the name of which they can’t spell — like Abiquiu. A name like this really throws an Indian operator for a loop.)

“Denise, may I ask you a question?”

“Of course, sir. We are able to address most of your inquiries. Particular questions about company policy and all investment questions, however, must be addressed by another department.”

“It’s nothing like that, Denise. All I want to ask is, Where are you?”

“Our billing center is in Columbus, Ohio.”

“So you are in Columbus, Ohio?”

“That is the location of our processing center, yes. We have our corporate headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware.”

“Denise, come clean. You are not in Columbus or Wilmington, are you? Tell me, where are you, right now, at this moment? And while you’re at it, tell me your real name.”

I hear Denise take a deep breath. This is followed by a moment of meaningful silence.


“Yes sir?”

“The call is monitored, isn’t it?”

More meaningful silence. I listen for the sound of a tabla in the background, a bit of East Indian muzak.


“Yes sir?”

“I think you’ve done a marvelous job capturing the middle American accent. You sound like you are from St. Louis. Perhaps East St. Louis, but definitely from the general area.”

“Thank you, sir. We will be happy to deal with the mistaken service charge and we will ask our billing department to check on the cancellation of your account.”

“The overnight hours must be a killer. How do you deal with working through the night?”

“Good day, sir.”

My encounter with Denise gets me thinking about Indian food. I wonder what dishes Denise brings with her to her little cubicle, what she nibbles as she smoothes her shiny black hair, adjusts her headset and takes yet another in an seemingly endless series of calls from debt-burdened idiots in the U.S. If I only knew how to reach her at Massive Debt Inc. I would call back and ask.

Chances are her meals are pretty fragrant, topped off, perhaps, with one of those odd desserts.

All this reminds me of a cookbook I read the other night: “Jasmine in Her Hair,” by Huma Siddiqui, printed by White Jasmine Press.

In the book, Saddiqui gives the reader some brief insights into Pakistani life (nothing about caves and jihad or anything like that) and provides a number of outstanding Pakistani recipes — which, to my untutored eye, seem little different from many standard Indian recipes. But, what do I know? The bulk of my experience with things Pakistani has to do with a weekly playing of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s CD “Rapture.” I like to listen to the incomparable “Sab Vird Karo Allah Allah,” my all-time Qawalli favorite. I do so with the aid of headphones: I wouldn’t want suspicious neighbors making a call to the Office of Homeland Security.

The similarity between the Pakistani recipes in the book and many ordinary Indian recipes means there is one ingredient that appears regularly in Siddiqui’s writing: garam masala. If you want to produce any dish that faintly resembles an Indian or Pakistani creation, chances are you need to have some garam masala on hand.

You can buy this concoction at a specialty store (there’s a stale imitation offered in the supermarket spice section) or you can descend to the depths and purchase a mess of cruddy curry powder and fuel your taste tank with its sad and bitter flavor. But why bother when you can make your own garam masala? Even tailor-make it to your own taste?

I bet Denise makes her own. I bet her sari reeks of the stuff.

Garam masala is a generic term that, for our purposes, can mean “mix of spices.” The variations are numerous but most contain several common elements, most of which can be purchased at the local grocery. The only other thing needed is a small electric coffee grinder. This grinder will forever be used to grind spices — never coffee. Violate this rule and you will have a coffee experience you will never forget, and that you will never want to repeat.

Standard for the mix are cardamom seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds (preferably black cumin) cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, whole black peppercorns and nutmeg.

Try this: Take two tablespoons each of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cardamom seeds and black peppercorns, one three-inch cinnamon stick (broken into pieces) and one teaspoon whole cloves and put the spices into a heavy, dry pan over medium high heat. Toast the spices for up to 10 minutes, until they are noticeably fragrant. Empty into a large, shallow bowl or put on a plate and cool completely. Grind and add a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg and mix.

The blend can be stored in a tightly sealed jar and will be good for a couple months.

If you don’t use it up sooner.

The trick is to never overdo it with the garam masala. This is pungent stuff and too much of it — as with the average cook’s use of curry powder — can run a recipe off the road and into the proverbial bridge abutment.

I am reminded of this as I read Siddiqui’s book. In it she offers a recipe for chicken tikka. I’ve eaten chicken tikka many times, in many places, among them an Indian cafe in Old Town Pasadena, a delightful third-story dive on 46th Street in midtown Manhattan and the marvelous but somewhat scary Anwar’s, located near the University of London. When the tikka is good, it’s capable of transporting the diner to a higher realm. When it is not good — perhaps there is too much garam masala? — the chicken should not have died.

Chicken tikka is nothing more than meat marinated in a yogurt-based, spiced sauce, then roasted in the oven.

The yogurt marinade tenderizes the meat, transporting the spices to the core of the flesh. The roasting browns and caramelizes things to a state of golden goodness (many Indian restaurants add red food coloring to heighten the experience).

Here is Siddiqui’s recipe.

Take six skinned, boneless chicken breasts put them in a glass dish and coat with the following: one cup plain yogurt to which you add one teaspoon of garam masala, a half teaspoon each of chile powder, ground cumin and salt, and a quarter cup chopped cilantro. Rub the marinade into the meat, cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350, put the chicken breasts in a roasting pan and drizzle the top of the breasts with a bit of olive oil. Cook for an hour. Garnish with more cilantro and with thinly sliced white or red onion.

Give Siddiqui’s version of raita a try and use it and some basmati rice as sides with the tikka. To two cups yogurt add a half-teaspoon ground cumin, a teaspoon whole cumin, a quarter teaspoon each of chile powder and salt and a quarter cup chopped cilantro. I recommend adding a quarter to a half cup of chopped, seeded cucumber to the mix. Refrigerate overnight for maximum flavor.

The added bonus to food spiced this way, with the addition of garam masala, is the way the kitchen smells during the cooking process.

A lot like a Mumbai call center on a hot and humid night.