i’ve been a chef for over three decades now! i trained in chennai and started off with the taj hotel group. i’ve owned nilgiri’s indian restaurant in sydney for over 15 years. i’m on a mission to dispel the myth that indian food is no more than a ‘curry in a hurry’! come with me as i try and educate. indian food is my passion (alongside cricket!) and i’m enjoying exploring the new social media to fulfil this passion! i’ve also published cookery books, been on tv, the radio, won awards! now i’m also moving into making cookery videos. these are simple and easy to follow and don’t go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!
I was asked a question in a cooking class recently, “How do you make a dish taste good, I just don’t seem to get it right.”
This got me thinking and the words of one of my mentors sprung to mind.
It was Arora Saab (Chef Arora), and he once said to me (way before I was called a chef), “Betae khaana banta hai haath se, lekin swaad aata hai dil se!!”
(Which means: Son, food is cooked by the hand, but the taste comes from the heart.)
This is so true!
But there are times when you have done all the right things, you’ve followed the recipe, you’ve got all the right ingredients but you still can’t get the b….y taste (sorry mum!). Or, like my cooking class participant you feel you must be doing something wrong but you’re not sure exactly what.
So what does one do then?
Well, first of all don’t panic!
We Indians have devised a technique that can take any dish that is flat, tasteless, insipid, cooked without ‘love’, or ‘dead’ seeming as, Arora Saab would call it, into the Andromeda strain or, aasman, with a simple process.
“So, what is this process, chef?” I hear you ask!
Well, it is very simple, yet highly skilled, and must be done with delicacy, otherwise the dish could turn out to be a CIAH!!! (You know what this is even without a translation!!)
The process has been used for centuries in all the different styles of regional cuisines throughout India.
It can turn a simple dal into a great dal, it can turn a very ordinary vegetable dish into an exceptional vegetable dish; it can also turn a very bland chicken dish into a tasteful dish.
So, “Out with it chef. What is this tareeka [technique]?”
Well, the Gujaratis call it vagharne, the Punjabis call it tadka, the inhabitants of Uttar Bharat call it chonk, the Hyderabadis call it baghar, the Maharashtrians call it phodni and the . . . well, there are at least 25 other versions of this technique which we don’t have time for now, so let’s cut to the chase!
In English we’d call all the above ‘tempering’.
ingredients used for adding the extra ‘oomph’
Interestingly enough, in India the actual process of tempering is the same in every state, although some of the ingredients may change because of their availability, or lack thereof, within each state, but the end result never changes which is to get a “wow” factor into the dish.
I mean, in the end, food must look good but it must, first and foremost, taste good and smell (close your eyes mum) ‘b….y’ good!!
So this is what, my fellow cooks and readers, tempering does!
I just thought I should share a few of these examples of tempering with you in the hope that you can try them the next time your dish needs that certain je ne sais quoi, or kick up the backside!!
And to demonstrate this I have decided to cook a simple dal, a dish that is a staple diet for most Indians both in the South and in the North. The Southern Indians eat it with rice while in the north it is an excellent accompaniment with roti, or bread.
A Northern dal dish is called mung dal tadka whereas the South Indians call it paruppu (well, that is what my wife calls it who hails from the south!). Today we are using paytham paruppu and giving it a talichu.
mung dal tadka
paytham paruppu with ‘talichu’
2 cups moong dal (mung lentils)
8 cups cold water (tap water)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
clockwise from left to right: vegetable oil, mung dal, turmeric and water
Step 1: Wash and drain lentils.
wash & drain lentils
Step 2: Add turmeric and oil to the lentils along with 8 cups of water and bring water to the boil.
add turmeric and oil and cook the lentils
Now for the tadka or ‘tempering’:3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon asafoetida powder
1 teaspoon ground chilli
salt, to taste
juice of half a lemon
2-3 fresh coriander leaves
clockwise, from left to right: vegetable oil (centre), cumin seeds, asafoetida, chilli powder, salt, lemons & fresh coriander
Step 4: Add lemon juice and the coriander leaves and serve immediately!!
add lemon juice & fresh coriander
For talichu or ‘tempering’:3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon asafoetida powder
2-3 fresh green chillies, roughly chopped
2 sprigs fresh curry leaves
salt, to taste
juice of half a lemon
clockwise, from left to right: vegetable oil (centre), mustard seeds, asafoetida, fresh green chillies, fresh curry leaves, salt & lemons
Step 6: Add lemon juice and serve immediately.
squeeze lemon juice on top and serve immediately
Remember the following when cooking lentils:1. Never soak the lentils. Wash and cook them immediately.
2. Start cooking the lentils in cold water, this helps them cook from the inside, out. As the water comes to the boil the heat slowly penetrates through the lentils, thereby making them soft.
3. Add the turmeric and oil to the lentils as soon as the pot is placed on the heat. This makes any impurities rise to the surface and the oil prevents the froth from overflowing. Do not discard the froth if there are no impurities.
4. Add the salt after the lentils are cooked and soft. If added at the beginning, the salt, prolongs the cooking and may also prevent the lentils from getting soft.
Remember the following when tempering:
1. The oil must be smoking and away from the heat when adding the spices.
2. The spices must be added as soon as possible but, and this is essential, one after the other. Adding the spices alternately allows them to crackle and release their flavors into the oil.
3. Never add the curry leaves to the hot oil, they will turn black and may even cause the oil to splatter. Instead, place the leaves on the cooked lentils and then pour the hot oil on top of the leaves as shown in the picture in steps 4 & 5.
4. Add the lemon juice just before serving, this helps bring out the flavors and brightens the colour of the dal!!
Serve it accompanied with a roti for the northern version, or with some boiled rice if it is the southern version, or do what my son and I do, which is so simple and yet so delicious. We just have it as a ‘soup’ on its own. Superb!
father & son enjoying a big bowl of dal!!
Save the roti and the rice for kozhi milagu chettinad or murgh kali mirch!
And there we have it, folks!
Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!!