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The Crackling Spices Of Indian Tempering

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 7, 2011

I spent eight weeks in India this summer, and most of the time I was in other people’s kitchens. I took more cooking classes than I have taken in my entire life — 13, to be exact. One of the concepts repeated in every class, whether taught by chefs, home cooks or food writers, was tadka.

Tadka translates as “tempering.” It is a method widely used in Indian cuisine, in which whole or ground spices are heated in hot oil or ghee and the mixture is added to a dish. Hot fat has an amazing ability to extract and retain the essence, aroma and flavor of spices and herbs and then carry this essence with it when it is added to a dish. American cooks are familiar with tempering as a way of heating and cooling chocolate. No relation.

Indian tempering is done either at the beginning of the cooking process or as a final flavoring at the end. For example, when making a simple dish of rice with cumin, heat the whole cumin seeds in hot oil and then add the rice and continue cooking it. Tempering also can be used at the end of the cooking process. When making curd rice, for example, prepare the rice first and then, just before serving, temper it with seasoned ghee. I make this tadka by heating the ghee in a tiny skillet and seasoning it with crushed red chilies, garlic and mustard seeds.

“Tempering also has nutritional benefits, since the hot ghee or vegetable oil helps the spices unlock their healing properties,” Mumbai-based food writer and cooking teacher Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal told students in a class specifically on tadka. She also told us that tadkas vary depending on the area of origin, reflecting the use of local spices. For example, there’s more cumin in the north and more curry leaves in the south. In addition to showing us the typical tempering ingredients, she used some unusual techniques in her tempering, such as adding hot oil to already roasted spices, which really helped transform dishes from mundane to magical.

One student asked if tadka could be prepared in advance and stored in the refrigerator, like compound butter, to be used later. “Absolutely not,” Ghildiyal answered. “If you do that, you may get the taste, but the aroma that is such an important part of the tadka will be totally lost.”

Experience has taught me not to use olive oil for a tadka. Olive oil breaks down at high temperatures, and for a successful tadka, the oil should be very hot. So I recommend neutral oils (such as a vegetable oil or grapeseed oil) or clarified butter for preparing a tadka.

Indians love their tadka and find ways to incorporate it as the new and upwardly mobile India voraciously embraces new cuisines (Italian seems to be the new Indian).

When I was in India, my cousin called to ask what time I’d be over for dinner. I said around 9 p.m.

“Great. That will give me enough time to get the pasta ready for dinner, and then when you show up, we can add the tadka,” she says.

That night, she heated some clarified butter, seasoned it with garlic and broken red chilies and poured it over her spaghetti with meat sauce. It was a dish that would make any Italian (or Indian) grandmother proud.

Tadka Tips

Pick the right size pan. If you are making tadka at the beginning of a dish, you’ll need a larger pan.

No water is ever added to a tadka.

The ghee or oil should be very hot at first. Then reduce the heat to medium. Once that is done, add the spices.

One of the cooking lessons I took was with Rohit Gambhir, executive chef at the Trident Hotel in Mumbai. He explained that one of the keys of making the perfect tadka is the order in which the spices are added: The ingredients are usually added in rapid succession, rarely together, with those requiring longer cooking added earlier and those requiring less cooking added later. For instance, add whole cumin seeds first and then add chopped garlic, which could burn if added earlier.

You can add pretty much any spice you like. Some of the ingredients commonly used for Indian tadkas are cumin, cinnamon, curry leaves, mustard seeds, asafoetida and red chilies.

The crackling of the spices or change in their color indicates that the process is complete. This usually takes only seconds, so be prepared to move fast.

When added to very hot oil, spices will begin to splatter. You can cover the pan when they spit, but you still have to move fast. Have all the other ingredients ready to go (if this is at the beginning of the cooking process) or have the final dish ready for the tadka as soon as it is done. It only takes seconds, so be prepared ahead of time — have your mise en place — as there will be no time once the tempering process has started.

Alas, there is NO way of saving a burned tadka. You have to start over again. (Your nose will tell you when you’ve burned it; it is not a smell you will easily forget.)

[Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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