The Indian tempering can transform the most regular dal into an epicurean delight or coax flavours out of ingredients that even they didn’t know they had inside them.
Tadka, vagaar, chhaunk in Hindi. Bagaar and torka in Bangla – naturally. Thaalithal in Tamil. Oggarane in Kannada. Vaghaar in Gujarati. Phodni in Marathi. Thalimpu or popu in Telugu.
In English, of course, it is just boring old tempering. Boring because look at how creatively descriptive many of the Indian languages are.
For example, according to Wikipedia, the heavily pronounced “chh” in the Hindi “chaunk” is onomatopoeic, mimicking the sound of spices sizzling in hot oil. I like to think the whole word is onomatopoeic, mimicking the sound the hot oil hitting the dal or curry. Also, “phodni” in Marathi comes from the word “phod” or burst, which is what happens to many ingredients during a tempering. I think they burst with joy.
And it is the makeup up kit in every Indian cook’s “pitara” or bag of tricks. Because used cleverly, it can transform the most regular dal into an epicurean delight or coax flavours out of ingredients that even they didn’t know they had inside them. (I mean, even Madhubala used makeup).
The basic kit is simple. It is oil.
It is heated, and then various permutations and combinations of spices and herbs are added to it at different points in time, and when the whole sizzling, sputtering, gloriously spitting enchilada smells (and sounds – this is equally important hence “chhaunk”, remember?) right, it is added to the dish. And the paalak next door becomes the Ingrid Bergman of your meal.
But there are some tempering that are even cleverer. Here are two.
Genius Tempering 1 - a South Indian staple, used to temper everything from curd rice but not your mother-in-law. But its uniqueness is that it is also used to make the traditional South Indian “poriyal” or bhaji, and when vegetables are cooked this way, their natural flavours come forth in the most wondrous way and serenade to your taste buds. For two reasons. One, more often than not, they cook in their own juices. Two, the only spice added is green chilli.
Ingredients- (For every 250 grams of vegetable, washed, cleaned and chopped – anything from greens to green beans)
Two tablespoons oil (adjust to the vegetables; high moisture content ones like greens require less oil.)
¾ teaspoon mustard seeds
One dried red chilli, broken into pieces
A few pinches of asafoetida (hing)
Four-five curry leaves (optional)
Two-three green chillies, chopped into large pieces, adjust to taste. (I just slit them and add whole)
One-two tablespoons fresh coriander finely chopped
One tablespoon freshly grated coconut (optional).
Method: Heat the oil in a kadhai. Add mustard seeds, red chilli and hing. When the mustard starts to splutter, add the curry leaves. As they crisp up, add the vegetable and green chillies. Stir-fry for a few minutes on medium heat till the vegetables are coated glossy with oil and begin to change colour.
Now add the salt and cover the kadhai and cook – you may need to add a little water for low moisture content vegetables. (Green vegetables should not be covered fully as they lose their colour). Check every few minutes and stir to prevent sticking/burning. When the veggies are cooked, add the fresh coriander and coconut, stir fry for another minute.
Remove from heat.
Genius Tempering 2 - Identical to the first, with one critical addition. Freshly peeled garlic added not to the tempering but when the dish is half cooked. This way, the garlic remains wonderfully firm and crunchy! Referred to as “usli” in Kannada” and “usal” in Marathi, it is used not to cook vegetables, but any whole legume or bean, all the way from fresh peas to channa.
250 grams of fresh peas/vaal (bitter bean) green channa, shelled or 250 grams of dried legume – channa, whole mung, lobia et cetra - soaked for five-seven hours and pressure cooked till soft.
-Two tablespoons oil
-¾ teaspoon mustard seeds
-One dried red chilli, broken into pieces
-A few pinches of asafoetida (hing)
-Four-five curry leaves (optional)
-Two-three green chillies, chopped into large pieces, adjust to taste. (I just slit them and add whole)
-10-12 peeled garlic pods (adjust to taste)
-One-two tablespoons fresh coriander finely chopped
-One tablespoon freshly grated coconut (optional)
Method: For fresh legumes like green peas, follow the Genius Tempering 1 recipe till the tempering. Then stir-fry for a few minutes on medium heat till the legume is coated glossy with oil and begins to change colour. Now add water (about one- one and a half cups for every 250 grams), partially cover the kadhai and cook on a slow heat till the legume is almost soft. Add the garlic and salt. When the water is almost evaporated, add the fresh coriander and coconut, stir-fry for another minute. Remove from heat.
For dried legumes, follow the first recipe till the tempering. Now add garlic, salt and the cooked legume along with the water it was cooked in. Cook till the water is almost evaporated (if you want more of a dal-ish version, you can leave more of the water in), add the fresh coriander and coconut, stir-fry for another minute. Remove from heat.
Finally, I cannot end this without mentioning a third tempering which the reason why dal-chawal is India’s greatest comfort food (after curd rice, of course – it’s mandatory for every Southie to say this). Where the oil is substituted with ghee and the magic goes something like this....
For 250 grams of cooked dal (tuar, moong are the favourites), heat one-one and a half tablespoons of ghee. Quickly add one teaspoon of jeera, three-four pinches of hing and one red chilli, broken into pieces. When the jeera starts to brown, and you get the glorious fried ghee aroma, add to dal. If you are adventurous, you can add garlic (five-six pods) and/or one-two tablespoons of finely chopped coriander!