(First published in TOI Crest Sept 17, 2011 issue How to Have a hot Temper.
The ghee shimmered in the pan, calm on the surface, intensely hot just below. In went the spices; asafoetida, cumin, garlic, in a series of angry little explosions. And when the sputtering and frothing of bubbles slowed down, the spices giving their souls over to the hot fat in a cloud of aroma, I added a tablespoon of orange zest, took the pan off the flame and poured the contents onto the waiting cooked split Masoor Dal. With a last splutter of protest it blended in, carrying the flavours of the spice to every drop of the dish in a sigh of orange scented steam.
Yes you read right I just put orange zest in a Dal Tadka! While working on an article on zest, recently I learnt we actually discard the best part of Citrus in India, the skin. Full of aromatic oils it is incredibly rich in valuable phytonutrients and vitamin C which makes it ideal to help the body absorb the iron and protein in dal. And I have been using it for my Masoor and Mung dal tadkas ever since!
So often we do things because we have been taught to do them a certain way. And adding a Tadka, which you might know as chaunk, bagar, vaghar, phodni, poppu or phoron depending on what part of India you hail from, is one of the first cooking techniques we learn in the Indian kitchen. Applied to just about every Indian dish, except dessert, this technique calls for a selection of whole spices to be fried in hot fat (ghee or oil) to liberate their essential oils and flavours. The resulting Tadka added to any dish rounds it off with a quintessential Indian aroma and flavour.
What is even more fascinating is this unifying concept, is incredibly diverse. Rooted in the origins of Indian cuisine, the Tadka travelled along as Indian cuisine spread across the land mass that was India. In fact so intrinsic to the cuisine is it that it has travelled wherever the cuisine has gone and is still applied to dishes in faraway bastions of Indian cuisine such as South Africa, UK, West Indies. In fact in Trinidad pigeon peas are still “chunkayed” (a derivation of Chaunk, one of the words by which Tadkas are known in Inda) with sliced garlic and whole geera (cumin) in oil even today.
Tadkas, their properties and the reasons behind adding certain spices in combination to specific ingredients is an endlessly fascinating subject, but along the way I began to wonder why we stopped at traditional uses for Tadkas? Usually added at the beginning or end of cooking a dish, a Tadka plays a twofold role. Adding flavour AND augmenting the nutritional value of a dish. Fat which carries flavour, plays medium. And when the fat is heated and the spices added to it, the inherent oils in the spices are released into the oil along with their flavours and carried through the dish by it. But the Tadka’s bigger purpose goes beyond mere flavour.
Every element of the Indian Thali has a purpose and the Tadka does too. Somewhere in our culinary history it was deduced that Tadkas augment the nutrition value of a meal. The fat used provides essential fatty acids required by a body and assists in the break down and absorption of oil soluble vitamins. Each of the spices used has a role to play. And the Tadka proves invaluable in aiding these spices in carrying out their preventive and curative roles.
In fact it was a simple Tadka for Mattha, a yogurt based drink, that got me thinking about experimenting with temperings. In the North, yoghurt is considered too cool for the system to digest in the winter so its inherent 'cool' properties are warmed up by tempering it with cumin, garlic and sometimes chilli. As I added cumin, garlic and green chillis to hot to ghee to temper buttermilk one day it struck me that the garlicy buttermilk would be incredible to poach chicken in. I was right. My chicken turned out wonderfully soft, delicately redolent of garlic, cumin and packing a subtle kick of green chilli. It’s now a regular on our menu in myriad ways; as is, hot, cold, in sandwiches, wraps or on salads.
That successful experiment turned my attention to other spice combinations. Spice combinations change in Tadkas as you travel through India. And each offered potential for new combinations. A Maharashtrian Phodni of asafetida, cumin, curry leaves, garlic and chillies, makes a wonderfully aromatic, spicy start for a stirfy of Brussles Sprouts, taking away the sulphurous smell the sprouts have. And at the risk of upsetting my Gujarati ancestors, I have to share that the Vaghaar of asafetida, mustard, kokum, curry leaf and chillies used for the legendary ‘Gujju sweet dal’ is amazing to cook fillets of fish in. Simply temper oil with the spices and lay fish over, pressing gently so spices stick. Flip over when pan facing side is evenly cooked and cook the other side till done, serve over hot rice so the flavoured oil of the Tadka trickles down to the bottom of the bowl! South Indian Sambhar tadkas make an exceptionally smoky, spicy stir fried chicken or sprinkle for Potato wedges. And Bengali Panch Phoron the legendary Bengali 5 spice mix of fenugreek, nigella, cumin, fennel and radhuni made a fabulous crusty meat rub for Lamb.
Pair traditional Tadkas with things they have not been paired with before led to so many winning combinations. But I have used some very simple Tadkas above. The Tadka has evolved as it travelled to adapt itself to what was locally available in the region. Which is why everything from the fat used to the spice combinations varies as one travels through the sub continent. But that said, many spices and their uses are extremely local and do not make it to the larger culinary map. Like the Jumbu grass used for Tadkas in Uttaranchal. This grass has a chive like flavor and is used in its dried form in Pahari Chaunks for dals. I use it very successfully to smoke smoke fish and chicken which results in hauntingly smoky, garlicky flavors. Although much better known than Jumbu grass, the Tamil propensity towards using Channa and Urad dal in tempering dishes is also interesting to work with. These dals, when roasted in oil take on a wonderfully nutty roasted flavor and texture that makes an ideal crust for coating meat and vegetables in along with spices prior to roasting.
As controversial as my suggestions might sound to purists, my experiments are not about creating bizarre combinations. Experimenting is fun and can lead to delicious ne discoveries. But it is a good idea to respect the parameters of the ingredients research their traditional uses and use that knowledge as a springboard to create new dishes. Indian cuisine has been using spices for millions of years and has perfected their use (and probably made all the mistakes possible with them!) One does not always need to reinvent things to cook well. It is possible to play with flavours without going against traditional practices; a tadka of whole spices added to a meat dish prior to cooking ensures the flavours infuse through the dish as it cooks. It is a practice that no new experiments can better. I don’t try to. But I find adding a few sprigs of Rosemary to the Tadka results in a fabulously aromatic results uplifting the smoky spices with a lacing of dark green notes. That Rosemary also helps in digestion of meat dishes, especially lamb, beef and pork makes it even more appealing.
I am not doing anything that has not been done before. As new ingredients arrived, Tadkas adapted to include them, a classic example being chillies which are not a traditional ingredient but spiced up Tadkas much later as a cheaper option to pepper. So why stop innovating? With all the wonderful ingredients we have access to today, there are a host of other things that can be added to Tadkas to augment the flavour and nutrition of a dish. Take a few leaves from Thai cuisine and use lemongrass or Kaffir lime leaves and zest in a tadka for Rassam or even Mung or Masoor Dal. Or Zest Citrus into tadkas for anything from Dals to pulavs and curries to uplift the dish and stir in valuable phytonutrients that help fight cancer, high cholesterol and control triglycerides.
Bollywood, would call what I am about to do Tadka lagana! But do experiment with other ingredients to provoke new flavours and combinations. After all the art of tempering is in our blood… And we are the most important condiment to our cooking yes we might burn some… but eventually we learn some.