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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’

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 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

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.
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!!!

A stock without any bones, but loaded with flavour!!!

In 1983 after I completed my training in Madras, I was offered a job in the Taj Group of Hotels as a commis in their new project in Bangalore. This was a dream come true for me.

I had always wanted to work for the Taj.

I had worked with the Taj Group previously as a trainee and a part-time cook but this was a full-time Job (with a capital ‘J’).

So, now that I was going full-time, there wasn’t going to be any more peeling onions or potatoes by the bagful. I was past that stage now. This was going to be a full-time job with responsibility!

When we reached Bangalore we were informed that the opening of the new hotel was postponed by about a year and that we were to go to Taj Palace in Delhi for specialization in different key areas of the kitchen.

Super!! That was fine by me. I had always wanted to specialize in handi cooking and making rotis in the tandoor.

This situation was perfect as I knew that the Taj Palace had Chef NP Singh looking after the restaurant, which was aptly named “Handi”, and that NP was a great teacher himself.

So, with great anticipation Deepak Rao, Annadurai and I reach Delhi and promptly report to the executive chef, Ruhaina Jayal, possibly the first female chef of a 5-star hotel at that time.

Chef Ruhaina then asks us to report to Mr Arvind Saraswat who was the corporate chef. Now, Chef Saraswat wasn’t just any other chef, he was the Big Chef. No, he was the Very Big Chef [upper case intended!]. For back then the Taj Bangalore was under his command, along with other hotels in Rajasthan and Madras.

Being under the ‘command’ of such a big chef made me nervous as this was not a part of the original script.

In the lines we’d learned in past performances, we usually just reported to the executive chef and that was the end of the matter. Not, however, any more. I mean, we were no longer apprentices and it was expected that we were to take up responsible positions on our return to Bangalore so we had to report to the Big Chef himself!!

We are summoned, one at a time, into Chef Saraswat’s office. In this office each of us is handed an envelope and asked to move on. “Yes Sir!!” we salute mentally as we’re drilled into action.

As we each open our envelopes we lean excitedly to see what the other is going to be doing.

Deepak gets to specialise in the “continental” kitchen.

Annadurai gets the handi kitchen and I. . . well, I do a double take in disbelief as I get to specialize in the “soup” section.

“What?!!” I think to myself and then say out loud. I’ve never heard anything like that before.

What in the world am I going to tell my Dad, my friends? . . . I am shattered. This wasn’t what I had expected at all!!

I want to quit, but then I calm myself and acknowledge that I don’t want to work for the Oberoi or the ITC or any number of other hotels that are just not in the same league!!

So, I decide to wage war against my inner feelings and I settle down with the idea of becoming the best chef de potage in the world (but I still can’t stop, literally and metaphorically, shaking my head from side to side thinking, “Bl…y h..l”!!).

Soup indeed!

And it’s right here, at the soup section folks, that I learn my first lesson in cooking and in life. And it’s quite a simple one: don’t have any expectations in life or you will be disappointed. Instead have hope and work damn’d hard for it.

So, I knuckle down and I start my specialization as a soup cook with Chef John.

Work starts at 6 a.m. every day, six days a week and it finishes at 3 p.m. every day.

Soups are made for the entire hotel, around 20-22 different kinds, and they are then delivered to each ‘satellite’ kitchen. I work my a.. off.

But I am not happy. I don’t belong here. Chef John, who is a master craftsman and also a mind reader, though he had no real qualifications to speak of, was a genuinely kind-hearted man for which you can’t gain any qualifications, it has to come from the heart.

“Son,” he says to me “you can always work in any kitchen after you have finished your shift here in the ‘soup kitchen’. You can work in the Indian kitchen, if you wish, or you can work in the garde manger.” As we all know, the garde manger is an unpopular starting point so what do I do?

Well, I opt for. . .

Both!!

And it’s here that my specialization begins! I am all pumped up even though I start my day at 4.30 a.m. in the morning and finish by 9 p.m.

And guess what? Yes, I love this! I wanted to specialize in the handi and rotis but I am now getting trained in the soup and larder as well.

Which leads me to the second lesson of my cooking life (and life in general!): expect the unexpected!!

Now that my mind is unclouded and I am working hard and long in such a variety of jobs, I am learning a lot much sooner. One of the lessons I’m learning very fast is Chef  John’s simple philosophy.

He believes that food cooked in, or with, water is bland and has no shelf life. Instead of water he likes to cook with a stock. He calls it Ganga jal, holy water, and he uses a different stock for every soup that is made in the kitchen. For example, he uses a mild fish stock for all the fish / shellfish soups. He uses a light chicken stock for all the Asian-style soups, and he uses a vegetable stock for all the shorbas.

Now all these stocks were out of this world!

He could be heard screaming in the kitchen, “Betae, Pan pakadne se pahle Chaku Chalaana seekho, Khaana banaane se pahle ‘stock’ banana seekho.” (Which means, “Son, learn to use the knife before you think of using the pan, and learn how to make a stock before you think of  cooking a proper dish.”)

Which brings me to a third simple lesson in cooking (and in life): get the basics right before you think of playing the ‘big shots’!

It is here that I learn to make some simple but fragrant stocks, a practice followed to this day in my desi kitchen!!

This week I want to make a simple vegetable stock that will be used to make a simple vegetarian (or vegan) dish…

To make a vegetable stock, or vegetable Ganga jal you simply follow the instructions below. What could be easier?

Ingredients:

1.  2 tablespoons moong dal or mung lentils

2.  2 tablespoons masoor dal or red lentils

3.  1 tablespoon black peppercorns

4.  2-3 bay leaves

5.  3-4 cloves with bud intact

6.  1 tablespoon coriander seeds

7.  1 small piece of ginger, roughly chopped

8.  1 small green chilli

9.  fresh coriander stalks with roots intact, washed thoroughly

10.  6 lts of cold water

ingredients from left to right: mung lentils, red lentils, bay leaves, peppercorns, fresh ginger, green chilli, cloves, coriander seeds & fresh coriander stalks (centre)

Method:

1. Place 3 litres of cold water into a pot along with the mung lentils [moong dal].

add cold water to a pot

add the mung lentils

2.  Bring the water to a boil, add the masoor dal and the remaining water. Bring to a boil. Allow the liquid to ‘slow boil’.

add the masoor dal after the water comes to a boil

add the remaining water

3.  Skim the scum off the surface of the water at regular intervals.

bring the stock to a ‘slow boil’

skim off the scum frequently

keep the stock at a ‘slow boil’, skimming often as the water boils

4.  Add the bay leaves followed by the peppercorns.

add the bay leaves

followed by the peppercorns

5. Then add the cloves followed by the coriander seeds.

add the cloves

add the coriander seeds

6. Then add the ginger.

add the fresh ginger

7. Followed by the green chilli.

add the green chilli

8. Finally, add the coriander stalks with the roots attached.

add the coriander stalks and roots

9. Cook till the stock has reduced and is ‘clear’.

cook till the stock is reduced

the stock should be clear

10. Strain the stock and let cool. Then freeze, or refrigerate, till required.

strain the stock

refrigerate or freeze and use as required

Some simple, but important, points to remember when making a vegetable stock:

1.  The stock should never be allowed ‘simmer’ or it will turn the stock ‘cloudy’.

2.  Add the spices one at a time, as in our images. This small procedure allows the volatile oils in each spice impart its specific ‘character’ or flavour. Remember, cooking is like a building. You start with one layer and gradually add another on top, in stages!!

3. Add the herbs without crushing them too finely. This allows the flavors to come out gradually.

4. Skim off the scum from the surface at regular intervals. (A full-proof way to do this is to carefully tilt the pot to one side of the flame (heat). Tilting the pot one way means the scum on the surface of the pot will move to the opposite side, making it easier to skim off the surface! Try it, you’ll get the hang of it.)

5.  Reduce the stock till the liquid has reduced by about a third, which should give you approximately 2 litres of pure Ganga jal.

Now for the dish.

Well, before we make the dish, tune in next week when we use this Ganga jal to make a simple, but totally flavoursome, vegetarian dish.

Until then,

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!

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