hi Yakuta and WayneT
It is very helpful to me to be able to learn from real people instead of having to rely only on cookbooks. I certainly didn't intend to start a flame war and I appreciate the postings from each of you. That said, here are some comments...
I only started a serious attempt at Indian cooking about 2 years ago. I am primarily (but not exclusively) vegetarian (just personal preference - not based on ethics/religion/health concerns). Since Indian cuisine has such a rich tradition of non-meat cooking it seemed logical to try to learn about it. (I won't say "master" - that would be hubris.)
NYC is home to so many groups it was easy for me to find stores that cater to the Indian residents so I can get many spices and other ingredients specific to Indian cooking.
A good approach is to make two make two spice powders if you like Indian food and sometimes want to experiment with it.
The most meaningful translation, to me, of masala
is simply "spice blend". I realize there are infinite variations but it seems to me, having collected/read a lot of "recipes" (from 'net searches and cookbooks) that they vary along 3 basic dimensions - preponderance of "warm" spices (like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, allspice), preponderance of "cool" spices (especially coriander and cumin) and spices/ingredients that give "heat" (chilis, ginger root, etc). Within these continua is a wealth of subtle variations in ingredients, proportions, preparation methods and cooking styles. I usually have a "warm" masala and a "cool" masala and I'm still struggling with getting the "heat" right (I like a touch but personally don't like really hot food).
Yakuta - I have (and have used) all the spices you mentioned except one (star anise) plus one you didn't (ajwan seed). I've never used black cardamom in masalas but it is one of the whole spices I use when I make peach chutney. I was surprised, however, to see you use star anise and black cumin in your garam masala - I thought "classic" garam masala was a blend of cinnamon, cardamom, clove and black pepper.
I hope you both (and all the other great cooks I found in this forum) will continue to post your tips, techniques, recipes and thoughts on Indian (and other Asian) cuisines. I've learned an incredible amount in a short time just "lurking" and browsing. Everyone is great about answering my questions too.
Big thanks to both of you!