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Perfect dal is all about tadka, baghar, vagharne, chonk, phodni or…..just call it tempering !!

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!

So, what is it that makes a good dal become an exceptional dal?

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 and in English we’d call it ‘tempering’.

ingredients used for adding the extra ‘oomph’

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.

A simple dal dish is the best way to demonstrate how great tempering is.

The Southern Indians eat their dal with rice while in the north it is an excellent accompaniment with roti, or bread. You can, of course, eat yours with anything you want and as a vegetarian, if you have it with bread or rice it creates a perfect meal full of protein.

mung dal

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

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


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 and then chilli powder.

add the asafoetida

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


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.
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!!!

Dhuyein ki machchi (smoked fish and tomato chutney)

sampling the wonderful dhuyein ki machchi smoked at home!

The dish I want to share this week is the easy-to-do-at-home, or on the barbie (great for the Aussies), dhuyein ki machchi!!

smoked fish and tomato chutney

ingredients for smoked fish from top, clockwise: ground garlic, ground ginger, chilli powder, turmeric powder, kebab garam masala (ground), oil, lemon wedges, salt; plate-sized NZ snapper (gutted and scaled); tea leaves for smoking

I like to serve this alongside a tomato chutney which you can prepare whilst your fish is smoking in the oven.

ingredients for tomato chutney, clockwise: kari leaves, chilli powder, oil, black mustard seeds, dry red chillies, chick pea lentils, white lentils, salt, asafoetida powder, lemon juice, turmeric, tamarind paste, tomato purée, fresh coriander leaves

step 1

the fish can be red snapper (pictured), baby barramundi, flathead, in fact use any whole fish that can comfortably fill a plate. It’s always a good idea to keep the fish on ice when out of the fridge

step 2

What’s smoking? To infuse the fish with a smokey flavour, you need something to smoke. Pictured is black tea with some of the ground spices that make up the kebab garam masala…… You don’t have to use tea! If you have time, use the fibre husks from sweet corn, dry in the sun for a couple of days. You can also use shaved hickory (available at all good BBQ stores)

step 3

If you’re smoking the fish on a stove you’ll need: heavy-based pan, glass lid, mixing bowl, whisk and a metal rack

step 4

If you’re smoking the fish in an oven you’ll need: baking tray, mixing bowl, whisk, metal rack

step 5

click kebab garam masala for the ingredients

step 6

grind until garam masala resembles course sand

step 7

your fish should be scaled and gutted – clean the insides thoroughly

step 8

on a chopping board, score the fish, three slashes on each side, about 1/2 cm deep

step 9

this is the right cutting depth

step 10

After you have scored all the fish, discard the ice.

pat fish dry with a paper towel or the marinade won’t stick

step 11

pat dry the insides of the fish as well

step 12

place fish in tray and cover with paper towelling whilst preparing the marinade

step 13: Preparing the marinade.

add 1 tbsp salt to mixing bowl

step 14

add 1 tbsp garlic paste to mixing bowl

step 15

add 1 tbsp  ginger paste to mixing bowl

step 16

fold salt, garlic and ginger paste together

step 17

add 1 tsp chilli powder and fold

step 18

add 1/2 tsp turmeric and fold

step 19

add 2 tbsp ground kebab garam masala and fold, add any remaining garam masala to the tea leaves

step 20

add polyunsaturated vegetable oil and fold

step 21

your marinade is now ready and should look (more or less!) like this

step 22

smear marinade over fish and into scored cuts

step 23

smear marinade into fish cavity as well

step 24

this is how much marinade should be on the fish (both sides)

step 25

folding in remaining garam masala to the tea leaves

step 26

if cooking on the stove, add tea leaf mixture to pan – the tea leaves should be laid about 1-cm thick, covering about 60% of the base

step 27

place fish on rack, add more marinade if necessary

step 28

cover pan with lid – a glass lid is ideal as you can see when the fish is ready without having to take off the lid (which you don’t want to do as the smoke will escape). As the fish cooks, the gills will open up and the dorsal fin will rise. The fish is cooked when the scored cuts ‘weep’ (fill with moisture).

step 29

scored cuts ‘weeping’ (moisture will bead there) means the fish is cooked

step 30

If using oven: turn on temp. to 180-200 C and also turn on the grill (if your oven is able to do both), to medium heat. Place tea leaves on aluminium foil in a tray on top shelf of the oven (closest to the grill). Tea leaves should be laid about 2 cm thick. Keep fish on the rack and place on tray. Then place on shelf underneath the tea-leaf tray, as shown above!

step 31

A close-up of the tea leaves in the oven – they will start to smoke

step 32

The fish is ready when the gills are fully open and scored cuts are weeping

step 33

Making the chutney that goes alongside the fish (prepare whilst the fish is being smoked).

add 2 tbsp polyunsaturated vegetable oil to a hot frying pan

step 34

when the oil is smoking, add 1 tsp black mustard seeds – if the oil is hot, they will immediately sizzle and pop

step 35

add whole chillies and fold

step 36

add 2 tbsp lentils and fold

step 37

add 2 tbsp white lentils and fold till caramelised

step 38

add 11/2 tsp salt and fold

step 39

add 1/2 tsp asafoetida powder and fold

step 40

add kari leaves and let crackle (this is pretty instantaneous)

step 41

add 1 tsp chilli powder and fold

step 42

add 1/2 tsp turmeric and fold

step 43

add 1 tbsp tamarind paste and fold

step 44

add 2 cups tomato purée and fold (or you may add chopped tomatoes or a combination of both), cook until the oil separates and appears on the surface

step 45

tear coriander, add to pan and fold

step 46

add 1 tbsp lemon juice, to taste, and fold

step 47

remove from stove – then serve chutney as it is, or if you prefer, blend it for a smoother texture

step 48

your chutney is now ready!

step 49

place fish and chutney on a serving dish and enjoy!

There are a few things I’d like you to remember when smoking fish:

1. Never add lemon juice to the marinade, this moistens the fish and will ‘break’ it up when smoked. Add lemon juice to the fish after it has been smoked and removed from the oven and whilst it is still hot.

2. Avoid small fillets of fish as they are too delicate, use whole fish, especially when the fish is ‘plate sized’.

3. If using fillets of a bigger fish, crust the skin side (making sure you do not skin the fish, dry the skin side and apply the marinade, the skin will get crisp after smoking) and cover the flesh side with aluminium foil to prevent the fillet from drying out.

4. You may use any wood chips as long as they are safe! Please check this before you use them. Also, try rose leaves mixed with tea leaves, it creates the most fabulous aroma and taste!!

5. Remember, never fry the fish before smoking it like they do on MasterChef, nothing is worse than this as the smokey flavour does not permeate through the fish.

So, happy cooking till the next one!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!

Who was Vishwanath Apte? A tribute to an inspirational Indian from down under

Vishwanath Apte

Well, there are nearly 200, 000 Indians in Australia, so I am told, and the number is increasing daily, so why single out Vishwanath Apte?

He was the first Indian to be granted Australian Citizenship in 1951, among many others I am sure, who came to Australia around the same time, so why focus on Vishwanath?

He was an astute and successful businessman who made a fortune importing and selling damask and fabric into Australia from India, China, Portugal and Pakistan. Of course there are others who ran successful businesses, and some even more successful than VA’s, so again, why single him out?

He was a philanthropist like many others in his line of business so that can’t be the reason I’ve chosen him in particular.

Okay, so let’s cut to the chase and explain why. It’s because VA was not just all of the above but he was also a great inspiration, both practically and ‘spiritually’, to me when I was going through a tough time in my business.

So here’s the story.

We had been open for nearly six months with little success. Firstly, my restaurant was possibly the first Indian restaurant to be called a Southern-style restaurant serving little-known dishes like prawn balchao, chicken xacutti, beef ishtew. . .etc. Added to this, it was also the first Indian restaurant that did not have the word ‘cu..ies’ on its menu which meant that a lot of Australians were confused by this fact, and to add to all this ‘ethnicity’ we did not even have a tandoor. It was a hell of a task trying to run a restaurant with all these challenges!! 

They say that when the going gets tough the tough……Yes, this line sounds good but not when you’re living it and don’t have the bl..dy money to pay your next rent!!

Enter VA.

Vishwanath entered literally into my life on a Thursday evening (in September 1991). There wasn’t a soul in my restaurant and in walks a family with an Indian father, mother and some young kids with their Australian friends (possibly the Australians were married to the Indian girls).

This was to be my first Indian family to have dinner at the restaurant and it could have been a great night if only the food had lived up to the mark.

The floor staff were too excited to even think about the basics of serving guests like giving them their napkins, or pouring water or even handing over the menus! Meera, who ran the front of house with Amin to help her, came charging into the kitchen to tell me there was an Indian family and they were speaking in Marathi, my mother tongue!

Orders were taken and the food was served. So far so good.

However, more orders were taken from them! By this stage there was no coconut chutney and we were running low on sambhar (an important accompaniment that goes with dosai).

nilgiri's masala dosai

So picture the scene, if you will. All hell breaks loose!! Just when we thought that all was going well it was slipping away, fast. There was a long delay and the family, and a few other guests in the restaurant, were losing patience. No food meant no service and no service, as we all know, meant no planning!

Anyway, the food was finally served, although it was late. It was my job as the chef to go out and apologise for all this misery. As I stood at one end of the table waiting to be crucified, I heard a soft, but stern, voice say, “I am very disappointed with the delay and poor service. The food, however, is very good and the young lady who looked after us is a good waitress!! We will come back but only if the food comes on time”.

Bl..dy hell!! After all this delay I was going to get another chance.

So, the next Thursday, as promised, the Aptes come back and thus began a long association that lasted over two decades.

VA was the man who gave me a second chance when people usually judge you on the first innings that you have played. Usually people aren’t interested in hearing about one’s history but Nana was aware that I had spent a long time working for the Taj hotel group in India. And so, according to him, I deserved another chance!

As the years passed we catered for a number of functions at Mr Apte’s  (now called Nana!) residence, including one for a famous flautist named Hariprasad Chaurasia, the classical vocalist Bhimsen Joshi, Malini Rajurkar and many others.

But, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end! My business partner and I decided to part company and Meera and I decided to move on. But where? Nana advised us to take a break and said that a trip overseas would help. So, we decided to go on a holiday and learn about food trends in other parts of the world. Nana made a mention of Woodlands in Singapore where some of his friends had a business. Nana said that as the owners were his friends they would help us set up a restaurant in Sydney, if the need arose. Now that’s a friendly gesture!

However, on return from our overseas tour, about six months later, and with Meera pregnant with our son, Aniruddh, there was absolutely no scope of starting a business let alone a restaurant. But Nana and Mrs Apte gave us a function to cater for almost every month just to keep the cash flow going. A considerate man!

When my son was born, Nana and Mrs Apte were there to wish us well and share our little bundle of joy the very next day! He never forgot Aniruddh’s birthday and wished him well till the end. What a great memory and what a very kind-hearted man!

Nana and Mrs Apte were also there to open my new venture, nilgiri’s, in Crow’s Nest and then in its new location in St Leonards where we still are to this day.

Nana was going to launch my first book but he was overseas when it came out and so the honour went to one John Pearce (I will write about this man soon. If Nana’s was the first family to dine at my restaurant, John Pearce was my very first customer. John left us for the heavenly abode in 2009).

Well, in 2007 we took up the biggest challenge of my professional career. We were to cater for nearly 1200 people for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea with snacks followed by dinner. That is a whopping 4800 meals in a day. We thought we could pull it off. But nature and other elements beyond our control were against us and the writing was on the wall. It could never succeed!! This was the biggest flop of my 31-year career and to this date I am not sure why I took up that humongous challenge in the first place. I was at my lowest point when I got a call from Mrs Apte to cater for a function at their place. Nana, a man of few words said to me, “Ajoy, I know you can do it, I have full confidence in you!”

What an amazing man, he had more confidence in my own capabilities than I had.

Well folks, from that day onwards we have never looked back.

But let’s get back to Nana and Mrs Apte who were my most regular customers. They were also my best, and fiercest, critics who had every right to be so! I remember on one occasion Nana was served a mini masala dosai when he had ordered a large one, and boy, he was not happy. I was summoned to his place the next day for this sacrilegious act. However, we moved on. We made mistakes, we learned from them, the rest is history.

Every staff member in my restaurant knew Nana and, of course, Mrs Apte. He treated the staff with respect and always had a tip for them in an envelope with their name written on it. To him they were not mere ‘servers’ but people who helped him make his function a success. What a great way to run a business. Treat your staff as helpers and not workers!

I am extremely fortunate to have been associated with this man of great character and acumen, who stood shoulder to shoulder with the best doctors, engineers and accountants when he was ‘just’ a commerce graduate from Mumbai. But what an inspiration to people like me who never even passed their graduation.

Nana passed away on Friday, 23 of September 2011.

He was cremated on 30th of September 2011. He was 88-years-old! For me that date is also significant as it is my father’s birthday; it now becomes doubly so. My father died in 2004.

Well Nana, you are a true ‘Fair Dinkum Aussie’! I will miss you.

Please try the following nilgiri’s masala dosai recipe that was one of Nana’s favourite dishes. It is essential that it is served with sambhar, fresh coconut chutney and potato pallya.

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