Ask any seasoned Indian home cook about the true foundation of a dish and the reply is bound to be Tadka. Call it Baghar, chaunk, vaghar, phodani and much more in different vernaculars, tempering is a crucial step in Indian cooking that sets the basics right. Now tempering in Asian terminology is different from the western concept; the latter referring more to balancing or stabilising an ingredient or a set of ingredients, especially in the confectionary field. The Asian version is the practice of cooking spices in hot fat to improve the flavour of a dish.
Tadka originates from taṛaknā, which interestingly means ‘to crack’ or ‘to break’. Fat being a better carrier for spices than water, the aroma spreads more evenly through the dish.
There are multiple components to the Tadka, most important being the heating of the fat. Clarified butter imparts a flavour like few other, as any true-blue Dal Tadka or Rasam fan would tell you. Health scares initially and sadly drove away the ghee lovers, but with more friendly researches surfacing, the masses are gradually making a beeline to the ghee counter, which, trust me, is extremely heart-warming to the Punjabi in me!
Techniques and combinations play an equally important part. Each savoury dish; and I am talking the length and breadth of our culinary map; typically uses a different set of ingredients, that need to be added at specific times, in a particular order and ratio and cooked for just the right amount of time before the main ingredients are added, or the tempering itself is added to the cooked dish. Which brings me to the timing of the tempering.
Some dishes begin with a tadka, while for some, it is the finishing touch; most of the Gujarati Farsaans are excellent cases in point. After all, who isn’t drawn to that final dash of mustard seeds, slit green chilies, curry leaves and grated coconut on a Dhokla or Khandvi?
My stint with Munir Ustad instilled in me the importance of Tahseer, a concept that was ingrained in the Lucknow cooks of yore. It’s about balancing the ingredients, neutralising the property of one with the property of another. The same Tahseer is an important aspect of tempering in Indian cuisine. Cumin seeds, cinnamon and asafetida aid digestion, mustard seeds are excellent for heart health and relieve muscular pain; in fact, the very addition of fat as the cooking agent is to enhance both the flavours and the nutritional benefits of the spices.
So the next time you prepare your tempering, stick to the basics, keep the ingredients in order and cook them right, because, remember – the magic is in the Tadka!
BAJRA & AMARANTH KHICHRI
2 tbsps sesame Oil
1 tsp Mustard Seeds
1 tsp Cumin Seeds
5 to 6 Curry Leaves
1 tsp Chopped Garlic
1 tsp Chopped Ginger
½ cup Chopped Onions
½ tsp Red Chili Powder
½ tsp Coriander Powder
1 tsp Turmeric Powder
½ cup Mixed Veggies (Carrots, green beans, peas)
2 tbsps Corn
2 cups Bajra, soaked overnight
1 cup Amaranth, soaked overnight
½ cup grated Coconut
Salt to taste
1 Tomato, chopped
Juice of 1 Lemon
Chopped Coriander for garnish
1 tbsp Green Chilies, chopped
1. Pressure cook bajra and amaranth with salt, turmeric & red chili powder for up to 3-4 whistles.
2. To prepare the Tadka, heat oil in a large pan, add mustard seeds and let crackle. Add cumin seeds, curry leaves, chopped garlic, chopped ginger and saute for a bit.
3. Now add chopped onion, coriander powder, mixed veggies, corn, cooked bajra, cooked amaranth, grated coconut, salt, chopped tomatoes, lemon juice, chopped coriander and cook well.
4. Serve with chaas, pickle and toasted papad.