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Just can’t get the taste? Well, try this!!!

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about ajoy

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.

mung dal

The Northern version is called moong dal tadka whereas the South Indians call it paruppu (well, that is what my South Indian wife calls it). Today we are using paytham paruppu and giving it a ‘talichu’.

mung dal tadka

paytham paruppu with ‘talichu’

Ingredients:

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

step 3: Cook lentils until soft, add the salt, turn off the heat and set aside.

mung dal should be soft to touch when cooked

mung dal, cooked, soft, salted and ready for the tempering!!

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

Method:

step 1. For tadka, or ‘tempering’, heat oil in a pan and let it smoke, remove from the heat and crackle the cumin seeds.

heat oil in a pan

add the cumin seeds

step 2. Add the asafoetida.

add the asafoetida

step 3. Now add the chilli powder

add the chilli

step 4. Pour the hot oil (this is called the ‘tempering’) on top of the cooked lentils.

pour the tempering on the hot dal

step 5. 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

Method:

step 1. In a pan, heat the oil and let it smoke. Remove from the heat.

heat oil

step 2. Crackle the black mustard seeds (by adding to the hot oil!).

crackle the mustard seeds

step 3. Add the asafoetida.

add the asafoetida

step 4. Then add the chopped/slit green chillies.

add chopped/slit chillies

step 5. Place curry leaves on top of cooked lentils and pour the hot oil over.

place fresh curry leaves on top of the hot dal

pour the hot tempering over the dal and curry leaves

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. Soaking prevents them from getting mashed.
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!

Let me know how you get on! Let me know if you transformed a slightly bland dish into a stunning one. And there we have it, folks!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!!

About Ajoy Joshi

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 and as well as having published cookery books i'm now moving into videos. simple and easy to follow that don't go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!

16 responses »

  1. Shu vat chhe,Kaka!!

    Reply
  2. excellent post chef ajoy. the tips are so helpful. both the versions are looking yummy. even i have dal as a soup.

    Reply
  3. I have heard of a technique where a broken piece of a clay pot is used in some manner for tempering. It involves heating the clay pot but I cannot recollect any details beyond that … I may sound crazy. Do you know such a technique?

    Reply
    • Hi K,
      Thanks for refreshing my memory. The technique is used in Hyderabad and is called ‘thikri’ ki dal where a piece of clay pot is heated till ‘red’ hot and then added to the dal (after it is cooked)along with the regular tadka or baghar as it is called in that part of the world!
      Happy cooking!!

      Reply
      • Sounds interesting! Does this lend a ‘made-in-the-claypot’ like taste to the dal?

      • Hi Priti,
        The dal gets an ‘earthy’ yet a very ‘pleasing’ flavour!!
        Happy cooking!!

      • Thanks for those details … now I just need to find a piece of clay pot here in the US of A.

        Also, want to mention a couple of my favorites for dal:

        1) The “thavve” from Karnataka: Similar in style to the paruppu you describe with a couple of key ingredients/steps: a) pieces of ridge gourd cooked with the dal b) mixing fresh, grated coconut as the last step.

        2) Using panch phoran for tadka instead of just cumin to get a very Bengali taste.

      • Thanks K for that info.
        Will certainly try it.

        Happy cooking!!

  4. I love a tadka of cumin seeds, dried red chilli, garlic and caramalized onions on my dal.

    Reply
    • Thanks Priti,
      I do too but with ‘chana and urad’ combination!!
      Reminds me of my early days in Hyderabad. Mum used to make it and serve it with ‘phulka’!!
      Koi Lauta de mere beetein huay din!!!
      Happy cooking!!

      Reply
  5. Hi Ajoy. Very useful tips! This morning I had no lunch for my (vegetarian) daughter so quickly boiled up some red lentils (in the time it took to brew my coffee) and added the cumin seeds tempering. So, she got that with a tiny piece of bread (all that was left over). Perfect (protein) combination! It was so quick and easy. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Pip,
      Great to hear that it actually worked!!
      You may try adding some roughly chopped garlic after the cumin keeping the pan ‘off’ fire and letting the garlic caramelise. Remember to add some salt along with the garlic to prevent it from burning!!
      Happy cooking!!

      Reply

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