I'm aware I should be toasting, grinding, and mixing my own masalas and what not, but is there a preferene for indian spice mixes?
It's fine to use store bought single spice powders like coriander or turmeric powder, but spice mixes like garam masala which is a combination of 6-7 spices are better made at home. Even things like ginger-garlic paste ground with a little water keep well in the fridge. Packaged pastes generally don't taste authentic.
Some of the more reliable Desi posters here can speak to the popularity of pre-packaged masalas in a lot of South Asian households. My father always kept a large tray of Shan masalas at the ready for anything from haleem to nihari while also having a reasonable stock of fresh spices to personalize the dish to his taste, as necessary. Just this weekend I made saag gosht for dinner using a combination of whole and pre-ground spices as well as a storebought garam masala and was perfectly content with the results.
I like to use a few different Shan brand spice mixes. I use their chana masala, and Chicken Handi mix quite frequently. One downside of Shan mixes is that they are pretty heavy handed with the salt. I usually use 1/2 of the Shan masala that the recipe on the boxes call for - and then fortify with other spices if/as needed. The Shan masalas should run under 1.00, and I reguilarly see them for 2 or 3 for 1.00 when they are on sale.
Penzey's is a good introduction, but if you go to any Indian Grocer, you will quickly see that Penzey's is a pretty bad ripoff. Any Indian grocer will have a wide array of masalas and single spices to make your own masalas at a minute fraction of the cost of Penzey's.
I used to like Penzey's Garam Masala a lot, until I finally felt confident enough to go to an Indian grocer. I got four or five differnt brands of Garam Masala for the cost of a Penzey's glass jar full. Each one I bought was like twice the amount of the Penzey's jar. I still go to Penzey's a few times a year for other things, but I don't think buying their masalas is the way to go. IMO, you can do MUCH MUCH better for the price - no contest.
You need a shop that has Indian spices AND someone willing to talk to you in detail as to their use. I get my spices in Nairobi or in India. I like Nairobi because the Indian ladies have always (from about 25 years ago) been very friendly and informative. I bring back individual spices in bulk and freeze them.
re: Sam Fujisaka
So, Sam, you fly over to Kenya every time you run out of spices?
I also like the online spice store Herbies Spices which is located in Australia. Even with the shipping it's quite a good deal and they have lots of things I've never seen here, including spice mixes.
I buy many of my spices at Milan Market in Berkeley. They have bins of all kinds of stuff. I love it because it's not only an Indian market, it's a video rental/sales store.
Oh yeah, and I also love it because I can get McVittey's hot ginger biscuits there.
re: Sam Fujisaka
FOR SOME REASON THE ABOVE DRAFT POSTED AFTER SEVERAL MINUTES....after I'd given up on it.
Sam, do you fly to Kenya every time you need spices?
I get most of my spices from a much more mundane source: Milan Market in Berkeley. They have a big turnover so that spices are likely to be fresh. It also has the distinction of being a market and a video rental/sales store.
They also have McVitties Ginger Nuts, my favorite cookies in the entire world.
I've also gotten spices from Herbies Spices in Australia. The prices are pretty good even after the shipping costs and they have all kinds of things that I'd never heard of before. Interesting spice mixes, etc. They have a nice website with photos and descriptions of loads of things.