--- Diana Chan is bringing the wonder of Asian cuisine to your homes in the second series of Asia Unplated with Diana Chan, Thursdays at 8pm on SBS Food and streaming on SBS On Demand. ---
In Indian culture, oil can be regarded as essential for the body and a natural lubrication of your bones.
That's according to Seema Choubey, the founder of Divine Indian Cooking Classes in Victoria who suggests the Indian cooking practice of combining oil with spices may have been a way to invite health into the body.
Choubey tells SBS Food, "It's one of the simplest techniques of Indian cuisine, but it makes a big change in the way we smell and taste the food."
The name of the technique she's referring to is tadka or tarka, which is the tempering (gentle frying) of spices in heated fat, either ghee or a vegetable based oil.
You may think you already practise tadka when you stir fry garlic or onion in oil before you add other ingredients to your pan. But according to Choubey and Arun Bose, head chef and owner of Kashi Indian Restaurant, Annangrove, Sydney, tadka isn't just about tossing spices and herbs in a fat. It's also about how you use this mixture.
Let us explain. After you gently fry spices in a pan of oil until aromatic, you pour this spice-infused oil into the dish you're cooking, either at the beginning of the cooking process or at the end. And, if you want a full-bodied flavour from the tadka in your dish, cover the pan with a lid after you've added your tadka.
Bose believes the technique originated from the Middle East. Middle Eastern travellers likely attributed medicinal qualities to spices and used it in their cooking. They then brought this practice with them to India.
How tadka is used across India
Choubey says that in northern India, tadka is mainly used in dahl (cooked lentils) and raita (a runny yoghurt accompaniment). People in northern India prepare tadka by heating sunflower oil or ghee over medium-low heat while making sure it doesn't smoke. Bose says, "To test that the oil is heated enough, put a small bit of cumin seed or ginger or garlic and if it starts to bubble a little, then it's ready."
Then, add your cumin seeds or mustard seeds and a pinch of asafoetida. When it starts crackling gently, switch off the flame and add the chilli powder. After that, pour the tadka into your pan of dahl or bowl or raita and immediately cover with a lid for a couple of minutes or until the smoke settles.
Choubey explains that people in southern India use the same technique, but the type of fat and spices differ. Urad dahl or chana dahl (uncooked lentils) are added to coconut oil or ghee, followed by dried red chilli, mustard seeds, curry leaves, and asafoetida. Also, unlike in northern India, tadka is a fixture in multiple dishes in the south, such as curries, stews dahl, chutneys and the potato filling in dosas.
In the eastern region, in particular the city of Kolkata, tadka is predominantly used in kitchari, a stewed rice dish, and goat curry. Bose says tadka in Kolkata tends to occur when you begin to cook meat or chicken dishes, and towards the end for dahl or vegetable dishes. Take goat curry for example. Chopped garlic, ginger, dried chilli, bay leaves and maize flour is tempered in mustard oil, then combined with goat meat. The lid is placed over the pan for the tadka to work its magic on the goat protein, before the curry's liquid components, the chopped onion and tomatoes, are placed in the pan.
You may even want to perform what Bose refers to as a 'double tadka'. To round out a curry, garnish it at the end with a tadka of Spanish onion, green chilli, garlic in ghee. Why? For more flavour, of course.
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