In the movie adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction series Dune, it is said that “he who controls the spice, controls the universe.” While that little nugget of truth was likely never intended to be taken in a literal context, it’s as true in the kitchen as it is in the Dune universe. Whether you prefer things hot and spicy, bold and flavorful, or just mild, cooking just wouldn’t be the same without spice. It is why the foundation of any well-stocked pantry must be built upon having a variety of spices, spice blends, and aromatics like garlic, ginger, and onion.
You may love spices, but you may not know how to unlock their full flavor potential. That’s where “tadka” comes in; this Indian cooking technique has existed for hundreds of years, but many of us have never heard of it. But, it is part of what makes Indian cooking so richly spicy and aromatic. Once you master this technique we guarantee that not only will you taste spices in a way that you’ve never tasted them before, you will want to apply this technique to every dish you make.
In English, tadka is known as “tempering.” It is the technique in which whole or ground spices are briefly roasted in oil or ghee (clarified butter) in order to release their essential oils, thus making their flavor more aromatic. This technique is popular across India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka and is also called chounk, tarka, bagar, and other names in various languages. After roasting, the tadka is added to the dish, oil and all. It is a common addition to dal (Indian lentil soup) and sambar (lentil stew with tamarind broth), though the tadka technique may also be used to make curry. Adding tadka to a dish is done either at the beginning of a dish or as a finishing touch.
Traditionally, the ingredients in tadka are cooked in ghee, or clarified butter, but oil can be used instead. When preparing tadka, it is important to choose the right type of oil. The spices need to be cooked at a high temperature in order to properly release their essential oils, so you will need to use an oil that can stand high temperatures. Because of this, olive oil is not recommended for making tadka, as it burns at high temperatures. Use expeller-pressed coconut oil instead when preparing tadka.
Tadka can be prepared in a skillet, in the pot you are using to prepare your dish including pressure cookers and slow cookers (but only if the tadka is the first thing added to the dish), or in a specialty pan used for making tadka, which also happens to be called tadka. It is a tiny pan with a relatively deep well, to prevent whole spices from jumping out of the pan as they’re being cooked. It looks similar to a ladle.
While the contents of tadka vary from region to region, the base is more or less the same. Add two tablespoons of oil to the pan, then add a teaspoon each of cumin and mustard seeds — try to add them directly to the oil. Allow the seeds to sizzle; this should take only a few minutes. Be very careful because if your seeds burn, you will have to start over. Once you master basic tadka, you can try adding other ingredients like fresh chilis, curry leaves, garlic, onion, tomato, or powdered spices, which are added after the base tadka becomes aromatic.
When you add tadka to your dish depends on what you are making. Tadka is commonly used as the finishing touch in dals, such as this Onion Tomato Dal, which has a tadka made from cumin, curry leaves, onion, garlic, tomato, and powdered spices. This Pumpkin Tarka Dal has a tadka made from cumin seeds, mustard seeds, coriander, turmeric, and tomato.
Tadka may also be added to curry. While dal tadka are primarily made from cumin, curry dal often include both tomato and onion. In this Mixed Greens Curry, onion, garlic, asafoetida, and whole cumin seeds are roasted in oil and added as a finishing touch. And in this Mushroom Mutter Masala, the recipe starts with a simple tadka made from cumin seeds and onion.
Tadka may also be made by dry roasting whole spices, then grinding them into a powder, as in this Cauliflower and Brussels Sprouts Curry, where the tadka is added during the cooking process.
Your best bet at finding a tadka pan is likely at your local Indian grocery store. If that is not an option for you, you cn buy online. This Futura Hard Anodised Tadka Spice Heating Pan is perfect for all your tadka needs. You can pick up this 1-cup pan for $15.99. Then, all you need are spices. Try this Vedica Organic Cumin, which is $6.99 for one 3-ounce bottle. Mustard seeds are also important for starting tadka, like these McCormick Organic Yellow Mustard Seeds. One 2.12-ounce bottle costs $8.32.
Ready to start cooking using tadka? Let’s start with the most popular dish: dal. This Spiced Coconut Dal starts with a trifecta of whole cumin, mustard, and fenugreek. Then, onion and dry spices are added, followed by tomato and lentils. This Red Cabbage and Zucchini Chana Dal starts with cumin and mustard seeds, plus asafoetida. It also includes a variety of spices that you can only find in Indian markets, such as dry mango powder, so it has a very authentic flavor. If you want to try dal as a finishing touch, try adding a simple cumin and mustard seed dal to this Sweet Potato Dal.
Try the tadka in this Dry Potato Cauliflower Curry, where the tempered spices are added as a finishing touch, rather than at the start of the cooking process. And the flavor of the sauce in this Vegetable Jalfrezi, an Indochinese dish that is made by frying marinated vegetables in spices, is enhanced by a tadka of cumin and ginger-garlic paste.
You also don’t need to make an Indian dish to use the tadka technique; this 20-Minute Homestyle Marinara begins by frying cumin seeds in oil before adding onion and garlic. Try applying it to your family’s go-to pasta sauce recipe.
For even more recipes where you can hone your tadka technique, see our vegan Indian recipes page.
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Lead image source: Onion Tomato Dal