The alchemy of Indian cooking - tadka

The alchemy of Indian cooking - tadka

The science of tempering and why it varies across the states of India

Tadka - The alchemy of Indian cooking
Tadka - The alchemy of Indian cooking Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: What do Indian dals or lentils and coconut chutney have in common? Tadka or tempering is an Indian cooking technique widely used across many Indian states. Every household has their own favourite style that they like to use; depending on what ingredients are available locally, they have different names.

In the northern Indian states, tempering is called tadka, whereas, in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, it is called thalamus. In the western state of Gujarat, it is called vaaghar and moving towards the Eastern state of West Bengal; they call it phoron.

Award-winning Indian origin, American cookbook author and recipe developer, Nik Sharma defines tempering his book The Flavour Equation as, “Tadka is a heat-based, flavour infusion technique that relies on fat as a flavour-delivery vehicle. Depending on the types of spices, herbs, and aromatic ingredients used, the fat extracts sometimes alter and subsequently deliver a combination of aromas, tastes, textures, colour, and even sound to the dish.”

Dubai-based Indian expatriate, Sphoorti Kshirsagar, said:

“I am a native of Maharasthra but I was raised in Coimbatore (a city in Tamil Nadu), so my taste buds are mostly accustomed to South Indian tempering, which largely uses a lot of sesame oil (and gingelly, a type of sesame oil) mustard seeds, curry leaves and lentils like urad dal or black lentils. The lentil leaves a nutty aroma. Again, mustard seeds are also widely used in Maharashtra for tadka.”

- Sphoorti Kshirsagar

In the Eastern state of India – West Bengal, phoron is the popular name for tempering, and the essential whole spices used here are - cumin seeds, brown mustard seeds, fennel seeds, and nigella fenugreek seeds. Here is how much of each whole spice you will need for this panch phoron recipe

Dubai-based Bengali restaurateur Kallol Choudhary said that in Bengali dishes, phoron is a must. “We essentially use a mix of five spices called panch phoron. It has equal quantities of cumin seeds, fennel seeds, red mustard seeds, onion seeds, and fenugreek seeds. This spice mix is readily available in Indian supermarkets or one can also make it at home.

“There is another important spice called radhuni or wild celery seeds used for tempering a popular dish called – shukto.” The spice is not available in Dubai, so he usually relies on getting it from Kolkatta, India.

Moving further East, towards Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, tadka is popularly referred to as chounk.

Dubai-based Indian expatriate from Bihar, Preeti Mishra said: “I make aloo bhunjiya, a traditional Bihari dish, in which potatoes are cut thin and stir-fried, and tadka is crucial. I first heat mustard oil in a pan, add cumin seeds, whole dried chillies and crushed garlic for the chounk. Then, I add potatoes, cook it on medium heat for about 20 minutes, add salt towards the end, and it’s ready.”

- Preeti Mishra

Every Indian has a tadka they like, say their go-to tadka and for many reasons. Indian celebrity chef Ranveer Brar explains the significance of tadka in his Dhaba style dal fry cooking video. According to Brar, people think that the first interaction with a dish is when they see it, but if you observe carefully, the first time one meets a dish is through its smell. And tadka does that; it makes you salivate.

If you look at it, tempering essentially prepares your taste buds for the food that is yet to arrive on the table. When whole spices release natural oil on mixing with fat or oil at a high temperature, a flavour is created. And this makes one anticipate the food.

Aglio olio with a twist and more tadka tricks

The next time you make aglio olio, spaghetti with garlic and oil, a traditional Italian pasta dish from Naples, use tadka. Add a generous quantity of finely chopped garlic in hot oil and sauté till they turn slightly golden in colour; that’s when the oils are released, and add red chilli flakes to it. Sauté for about 10 to 15 seconds and then drizzle it on the al dente spaghetti pasta. Sprinkle Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and you have aglio olio, tadka style ready. Instead of adding pasta to the garlic and flakes in pan, we reversed and drizzled it with the tempering. Like me, aglio olio purists would not have liked this idea. But try it once.

Aglio Olio pasta. Image used for illustrative purpose only
Aglio Olio pasta. Image used for illustrative purpose only Image Credit: Shutterstock

If you have always wondered how to make chicken curry look like the ones they serve in restaurants without adding food-grade colour to it, then think no further. Tempering does that, but you have to ensure the temperatures are correct. Because we don’t want to undercook the spices or burn them. When using vegetable oil, a rule of thumb is to drop a pinch of spice into the oil; if the oil is hot enough, the spice or herb will begin to splutter. For mustard oil, wait for the oil to heat up. You know it’s ready when smoke begins to release.

Going back, cook and keep the chicken aside. In a separate pan, heat mustard oil, then add the desired quantity of Kashmiri red chilli powder and quickly turn off the heat. Drizzle the tempering onto the chicken and cover it with a lid. You will see the colour change to a lovely crimson red. A little tadka trick to elevate a simple curry dish. If you want, you can skip adding the Kashmiri red chilli, just plain oil will do.

Explaining the science behind tadka

In his book, Sharma explains the three essential components of a tadka – fat, spices and heat. Besides these, temperature, tools and time are key factors that help achieve a well-balanced tadka, which is neither too bitter nor undercooked.

Heat has been one of the oldest methods to preserve food, especially spices. They are usually dried at a low temperature; this process allows the water to be removed by evaporation, helping prevent the growth of microorganisms. In this process, the flavour molecules, most are fat-soluble, freeze and when they are tempered in hot oil and with fat, the molecules come back to life. The oil or fat becomes fluid and allows the dried spices to penetrate well, which in turn gains energy upon heating and dissolves in the heated fat or oil.

Choosing the correct oil or fat

In India, every state uses different oils or fats, and northern states predominantly use mustard oil, whereas the southern coastal states use coconut oil. Both have a distinctive flavour, just like ghee or clarified butter. But the challenge with ghee is, it solidifies when served with cold dishes, like raita, a yoghurt-based condiment mixed with chopped vegetables.

Sesame oil - a thick yellowish brown coloured oil
Sesame oil - a thick yellowish brown coloured oil Image Credit: Shutterstock

Choosing the right fats or oils largely depends on the type of dish, the temperature at which it will be served - either hot or cold. For example, a kadhi pakoda (yoghurt-based curry) uses a red chilli powder tadka with hing or asafoetida that looks visually stunning against the yellow backdrop of kadhi.

Another essential factor to keep in mind is how old the oil is. If you use stale oil, the tadka will taste rancid.

Whole spices and fresh ingredients

Some common whole dried spices used in tadkas across India are coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds, sesame seeds, mustard seeds, green and black cardamom pods, cinnamon, turmeric, lentils and some beans and asafoetida. Whereas fresh ingredients like onions and shallots, ginger, chillies, curry leaves, garlic and bay leaves are also popularly used to temper different Indian dishes. They taste varies, depending on how they are used.

For instance, if you use whole spices, they might take longer to release their flavour than ground spices, but the taste and smell are much better. Another way to use whole spices and fresh ingredients are to crush them in a mortar and pestle. Ideally, chillies - green or red - should be slit and ends removed so that they do not splutter much when added to hot oil. Similarly, for whole spices like cardamom - green and black, it is advisable to crack them slightly to release the flavours. Also chances are that they will burst open upon reacting with hot oil and splutter.

Using a tadka pan or a small saucepan works best because the space allows spices and ingredients to submerge in oil and cook well. A tadka largely depends on the recipe of a dish. However, there is plenty of room to experiment and with different cuisines too. Here are some evergreen Indian recipes that use tadka - dal tadka, kadhi pakoda and sabudana khichdi.

Tell us the tadka you like at

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