Almost every savoury dish in India is tempered – that is, spices heated in oil are added either at the beginning of the cooking or more usually at the end of cooking. A little oil or ghee is heated and then the relevant spices are added and cooked until they change colour, pop or crackle. Sometimes small amounts of lentils such as channa dal or urad dal are added for flavouring and texture.
How is this tempering done? By heating an oil – usually ghee – and adding the relevant spices, one by one, until they change colour, crackle or pop.
Although the basic concept of tempering is the same all over India, each region, every family, and every dish, has its own distinctive set of spices that are used and the method used, and of course each family claims that theirs is the best way to temper food! And of course, it is.
Different areas have different names for tempering, e.g. Tadka / Talimpu / Chaunk.
In South Indian Cuisine, savoury dishes are flavoured with a tadka at the beginning or end of cooking. A tadka is a mixture of spices sauteed in ghee, Indian sesame oil or coconut oil. Tadkas are applied to most dishes, and the most popular spices for tadkas are black mustard seed and curry leaves. Small amounts of lentils such as urad dal and channa dal are sometimes used in tadkas as additional flavouring and textural agents.
The science behind tadka is that the aromatic compounds in spices dissolve much better in oil than in water, thus frying in ghee enhances the fragrance because of the high temperature, and it also extracts the flavour to the oil so it can be dispersed through the food efficiently. The tadka method is a good way to deliver the spice flavour, as oil is an excellent carrier for them, plus putting the lid on the pan for a few minutes after adding a tadka traps the fragrant aromas so they can infuse the dish.
How to Make a Tadka
When a tadka is called for, the recipe will generally indicate the spices that will be used. Begin by heating the ghee, Indian sesame oil or coconut oil, and add the black mustard seeds. Allow them to pop. This changes their character from mustardy, to a nutty, musky flavour. Then add the spices and other ingredients in the order given in your recipe, allowing a moment or two between each addition. Finally the curry leaves (if used) are added. These will splutter as they hits the hot oil, so be prepared.
If the tadka is made at the beginning of the recipe, the main ingredients of the dish are now added to the takda and cooking continues.
However if the tadka is being made as the final component of the dish, it is now poured over your dish, ghee and all, and mixed in.
The tadka gives the signature taste to your Indian dishes.
Feel free to browse recipes from our Retro Recipes series. You might also like our Spice information here. Or you might like to browse our Indian Essentials series here. Check out our easy Indian recipes here and here.
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