I think the idea behind "garam" is hot as in warming, from the warming spices that we normally use in desserts (cinnamon, etc), not hot as in mirch, chili spicy. You know what's funny, you read enough Indian cookbooks and you start substituting the Indian names for ingredients. Mirch, saunf, jeera, hing, etc! Can get confusing.
I love dal. One of the most forgiving dals to cook into a puree is the red/salmon colored masoor dal. Cooks quickly. Toor dal I've sometimes had troubles with! Chana dal (chickpeas) is more common for things like masala dal, where the chickpeas are not mashed.
Basmati rice really isn't negotiable, its quite unique...you can get it for larcenous, outrageous prices at many grocery stores as a specialty rice, but you can get it quite reasonably at an Indian market. I pay $5.99 for 4lbs, which I'm sure I could get a better price if I bought in larger bulk, but its much cheaper than my supermarket...
I once made masala chai and it freaked me out. I still don't get why...I drink cup after cup of black coffee every day and never notice any effect of caffeine, then I drink a few cups of masala chai and it totally sends me into a caffeine fit, felt sick and jittery for hours. Maybe because the recipe has you boil the leaves instead of steeping them? Ah well. Tasty though.