The Crackling Spices Of Indian Tempering

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.

About The Author

An engineer turned food writer, Monica Bhide writes about food and its effect on our lives. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Food & Wine, Prevention, Cooking Light, Health and Self. Her latest book is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster). Read more at her website.

"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.)

Chaas With Cumin (Spiced Buttermilk)

Chaas (also called mattha) is a savory dairy drink enjoyed all over India. In this instance, it is made by thinning yogurt with a little bit of water. This recipe was adapted from one by Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal.

Chaas With Cumin (Spiced Buttermilk) i i
Sala Kannan for NPR
Chaas With Cumin (Spiced Buttermilk)
Sala Kannan for NPR

Makes 4 servings

3 cups Greek-style yogurt

1 cup water

1/2 teaspoon ground toasted cumin

1 small green serrano chili, minced (optional)

1/2 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon chopped mint

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

Tadka

1 teaspoon ghee* or grapeseed oil

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic

1/4 teaspoon minced green chili such as jalapeno

Whisk the yogurt with the water until smooth. Add the ground cumin, chile, ginger and salt and mix well. Pour into four glasses.

To make the tadka, heat the ghee in a small pan until it shimmers. Add the cumin seeds. When the cumin darkens and gets aromatic, add the garlic. When the garlic starts getting golden at the edges, add the chili. Fry until the chili begins to darken but not burn.

Pour the tadka over each portion. Serve garnished with the chopped mint and cilantro.

*Available at Indian markets

Garlicky Braised Yogurt Chicken

This recipe was adapted from one by Indian cooking teacher Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal. Serve it with crusty bread and a green salad.

 Garlicky Braised Yogurt Chicken i i
Sala Kannan for NPR
 Garlicky Braised Yogurt Chicken
Sala Kannan for NPR

Makes 4 servings

Chicken

1 1/2 cups Greek-style yogurt

1 cup water

1 teaspoon ground toasted cumin

1/2 teaspoon minced green serrano chili

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 to 1 1/4 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces

1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved into a paste in a little water

1 teaspoon chopped mint

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

Tadka

1 tablespoon ghee* or grapeseed oil

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 tablespoon chopped garlic

1/2 teaspoon chopped green chili

Whisk the yogurt with the water until smooth. Add the ground cumin, minced chili, ginger and salt and mix well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Set aside near the stove.

To make the tadka, heat the ghee in a small pan until it shimmers. Add the cumin seeds. When the cumin darkens and gets aromatic, add the garlic. When the garlic starts getting golden at the edges, add the chili. Fry until the chile begins to darken but not burn. Pour this flavored ghee over the yogurt mixture.

Combine the chicken and yogurt mixture in a large saucepan. Place over low heat and cook, stirring often, until the chicken pieces have turned opaque. Lift out the chicken pieces and transfer them to a large nonstick skillet, over medium heat, leaving the yogurt mixture to simmer over very low heat.

Cook the chicken slowly, using some of the yogurt mixture to baste it, until cooked through.

Meanwhile add the cornstarch paste to the simmering yogurt and stir in well. It will thicken quickly to the consistency of a white sauce.

When chicken begins to get golden brown and crisp at the edges, return it to the yogurt sauce and stir well to coat.

Sprinkle with the mint and cilantro and serve.

*Available at Indian markets

Rushina's 'Anna Rascalla' Potato Wedges

Clarification Feb. 28, 2014

The original introduction to this recipe incorrectly attributed the term anna rascalla to the actor Rajnikanth.

The tempering method here is a little different from the others: Indian cooking teacher Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal heats the oil first and then pours it over the already toasted spices. The result is an excellent potato dish with a lovely crunch of sesame. Rushina said she thought anna rascalla, or "rascal man" — a term widely associated with the popular South Indian actor Rajnikanth's films — an appropriate name for a spice blend inspired by ingredients traditionally used to temper a South Indian stew but which brings a magical flavor even to simple potato wedges.

Rushina's Potato Wedges i i
Monica Bhide for NPR
Rushina's Potato Wedges
Monica Bhide for NPR

Makes about 1/2 cup masala (spice mix), and 4 to 6 servings potatoes

Masala

1 cup loosely packed fresh curry leaves*, washed and dried

1 tablespoon whole fenugreek seeds*

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

5 or 6 dried chilies

1/2 cup toasted sesame seeds

Potato Wedges

2 1/4 pounds potatoes, such as Yukon gold, skin on, scrubbed well

Salt

6 to 8 garlic cloves, crushed

1 tablespoon amchur powder*

3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

To make the masala, toast the curry leaves in a dry skillet until they curl up, turn olive green and become brittle and aromatic. Transfer to a bowl to cool.

Toast the fenugreek, coriander, cumin and chilies individually until each darkens in color slightly and releases its aroma. Set aside separately to cool.

Using a mortar and pestle, spice grinder or blender, grind the fenugreek seeds alone. Add the cumin and coriander and grind to a coarse powder. Add the chilies and curry leaves and grind to a coarse powder. Stir in the sesame seeds and transfer to an airtight container.

Put the potatoes in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Add salt and bring to a boil. Simmer until almost tender, then drain and cool.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Cut the potatoes into large wedges and place in a large bowl. Stir in the garlic.

In a smaller heatproof bowl, combine 3 tablespoons of the masala and the amchur. In a small pan, heat the sesame oil until quite hot. Stir it into the masala mixture. Pour the resulting paste over the potato wedges and toss to coat them well. Spread the potatoes in a single layer on the baking sheet. Bake for about 30 minutes, turning the wedges once or twice, until golden brown and crisp on the outside and cooked all the way through on the inside. Serve hot from the oven.

*Available at Indian markets

Tadka Soup With Crab

Traditional lentil soups in India are made with lentils, onions, tomatoes and a large array of spices, then topped with a tadka of another array of spices. While they are rewarding in taste, they are too time-consuming for weeknights because most lentils take a long time to cook. When I discovered cannellini beans, I knew I had a solution. When I first served this soup to my mom, she tasted it begrudgingly — cannellini beans are not something she is familiar with. But, she had to admit, it was love at first sip, especially since the flaming red of the deghi mirch (a red chili that provides color but not heat) and the smell of the clarified butter made it taste like home. This soup is from my book Modern Spice (Simon & Schuster, 2009).

 Tadka Soup With Crab i i
Olga Berman for NPR
 Tadka Soup With Crab
Olga Berman for NPR

Makes 4 small or 2 large servings

Soup

2 tablespoons butter

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 can (15 1/2 ounces) cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

2 cups chicken broth

1/4 cup heavy cream

Salt and ground white pepper

1/4 pound cooked lump crab, picked over

Tadka

1 tablespoon ghee* or vegetable oil

1/4 teaspoon deghi mirch* or paprika

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

For the soup, heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and onions. Saute for about 10 minutes, or until transparent and soft. Add the beans and cook another 5 minutes. Add the broth and simmer for 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Working in batches if necessary, puree in a blender until smooth. (If you prefer a really smooth soup, pass the puree through a strainer.) Return the soup to a clean saucepan and stir in the heavy cream. Check the seasoning and adjust as necessary with salt and pepper. Reheat the soup to a gentle simmer.

Ladle the soup into serving bowls and top each with an equal amount of crab.

To make the tadka, in a small pan, heat the ghee on medium heat until quite hot. Add the deghi mirch and red pepper flakes. Remove from heat immediately and drizzle over the soup. Serve immediately.

*Available at Indian markets

Tadka Dahi (Spiced Yogurt)

One of the cooking lessons I took in India was with chef Rohit Gambhir, executive chef at the Trident Hotel in Mumbai. He taught me how to make this amazing yogurt side dish. This recipe is really simple to make but the results are delightful. I have served it as a dip with vegetables and as a side with roasted chicken.

Tadka Dahi (Spiced Yogurt) i i
Sala Kannan for NPR
Tadka Dahi (Spiced Yogurt)
Sala Kannan for NPR

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds

1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

8 to 10 fresh curry leaves*

1 whole dried red chili (any kind)

1/2 cup finely chopped onions (white or red)

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

1 green serrano chili, minced (optional)

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 cup chopped fresh tomatoes

2 1/2 cups Greek-style yogurt

Salt

Sugar (optional)

1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro

Heat the oil in a skillet until it is almost smoking. Reduce the heat to medium and add the mustard and cumin seeds, curry leaves and whole red chili. Cook until the spices crackle.

Add the onions and saute until they are golden brown. Add the ginger and green chili (if using) and saute for another minute.

Add the coriander, cayenne and turmeric and saute for 10 seconds, until they darken slightly. To prevent the spices from burning, you can add a few drops of water (since this is not the tempering stage, water is allowed).

Reduce the heat to low and add the tomatoes. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is almost dry and the oil begins to separate out. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Add the yogurt to the onion-tomato mixture and mix well. Season with salt. If the flavor is too tart, stir in a little sugar, up to 1 tablespoon. (You don't want to make the yogurt sweet, just to balance the sourness.) Sprinkle with the chopped cilantro and serve.

*Available at Indian markets

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