Spicing Things Up - The Tantalizing Tadkas Of India
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One of the most prominent and distinctive features of Indian cuisine is its tadkas. The flavourful temperings highlight the taste and aroma of dishes. Tadkas require a cooking medium, and fats like ghee or oils are often used to prepare a tempering. Ghee is a flavourful ingredient to temper the dals, curries, sambhars etc. In contrast, various oils like mustard, coconut, groundnut, sesame, etc., are used in different regional cuisines of India. Choosing the right oil in the right amount for the suitable dishes is paramount, as well as the tempering technique to prepare a perfect tadka and elevate the flavour of the recipient dish. Tadkas can be added to the dish as the final addition or as we begin to cook a dish, depending on the style of preparation. 

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Heeng Jeera Ka Tadka 

Heeng is essential in imparting a robust aromatic flavour to the tadka. Asafoetida, or Heeng, is widely used in Indian cooking and often added to heated ghee for its full flavour. Among the spices, cumin seeds are a common addition to a basic tadka, imparting its flavour as it splutters in the hot ghee. Heeng and Jeera ka tadka is commonly used to temper dals, and red or green chillies can often be added for flavour and spice. 

South Indian Tadkas 

Tadkas are a common addition to most South Indian preparations, and a variety of ingredients are used to temper a variety of dishes. Mustard seeds are added and left to splutter in hot ghee or oil and provide the quintessential south Indian taste to dishes when tempered along with curry leaves, or heeng or red chillies, all commonly used ingredients to temper preparations like sambhar, rasam, and chutneys. Onions are added to temper fish curries like a ‘Fish Panna Upkaari’ in Mangalore. In contrast, coconut shavings, split urad dal, cumin seeds, and whole red chillies often temper South Indian dishes from the coast and inland. 

Numerous chutneys of South India get their flavour from the aromatic tadkas added to them. Similarly, dishes like lemon rice, tamarind rice, or curd rice are elevated in flavour, from simple rice preparation to flavourful preparations with South Indian tadkas added. From dosa fillings to breakfast dishes like Upma, ‘Bisi Bele Bhath’, stews, fish curries, and beverages like buttermilk depend on the flavourful tadkas for their right taste and flavour. 

Bengali Tadka (Panch Phoran) 

Bengali cuisine is a widely sought-after cuisine of India and is known for using various aromatic ingredients, spices, and flavours. The usage of seeds in their temperings is well known and provides a unique Bengali flavour to the indigenous dishes of the region. Panch phoran, the unique five-spice tempering used in Bengali cuisine, is a typical style of preparing traditional dishes in the eastern state. Panch phoran comprises Cumin seeds (Jeera), Fennel Seeds (Saunf), Fenugreek Seeds (Methi Dana), Mustard Seeds (Rai), and Nigella seeds (Kalonji). A mix of these five spices is tempered in hot mustard oil and added to numerous Bengali dishes like ‘Shukto’,’ Cholar Dal’, ‘Aloo Poshto’, ‘Macher Jhol’ etc. 

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Punjabi Tadka (Onion Tomato Tadka) 

Punjab is a state known for its rich and flavourful food, and Punjabi tadka adds deliciousness to the cuisine. Most Punjabi dishes, especially the famed Punjabi curries, are cooked starting with the tempering first. In Heated oil, some whole spices, like cumin seeds, bay leaf, etc., are added to extract their flavour, and to it, chopped onions are added and sauteed till golden brown colour is attained; red chilli powder, chopped green chillies, coriander powder, turmeric etc., are a common addition to a Punjabi tadka, into which chopped tomatoes are added, and cooked till oil separates from the tempering. This tadka of onion and tomatoes is added to many Punjabi dishes, especially the famed Kadhai dishes, which lends the name to the tadka, calling it a Kadhai Tadka or a Kadhai Gravy. Punjabi Dal Tadka, prepared with Toor Dal or Arhar Dal, uses the same Punjabi tempering and many popular dishes like Kadhai Paneer, Palak Paneer, Gobhi Masala, Rajma etc. 

Finishing touches to the Famous Dal of Kesar Da Dhaba in Amritsar, or of any Punjabi Dhaba worth its salt, would be given with a ghee ka tadka, into which finely chopped onions and red chilli powder are added, creating a hot sizzle, and a dish hard to resist by any food lover. 

The Versatility Of An Indian Tadka 

Tempering in India is added to dishes of varied styles. Khandvi and Dhokla are two of the most popular snacks of India coming from the state of Gujarat and are incomplete without the addition of a flavourful tadka. In heated oil, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, curry leaves, heeng, and green chillies are commonly added to a tadka for these Gujarati snacks. For a Dhokla, a bit of water, sugar, and lemon juice is also added to give it its unique sweet, sour and spicy flavour. These tadkas are added to the dishes as a finishing touch and a garnish to the famed Gujarati snacks. 

In Hyderabad’s famous ‘Baghare Baingan’, the importance of the tadka or baghar, which is added to the dish, also gives the name to this aromatic and flavourful eggplant dish. Be it the ‘Dal Bati’ of Rajasthan or ‘Litti Chokha’ of Bihar, the tempering gives the defining taste to the accompaniments of ‘Dal Panchmel’ or ‘Aloo Baingan ka Chokha’. A widely loved dish in India, ‘Khichdi’ is known for its simplicity and ease of preparation and consumption and is often spiked with the flavour of a Ghee Ka Tadka, with spices and chillies as per taste and choice. 

‘Chunke Hue Aloo’, or tempered potatoes, is a typical north Indian dish, eaten with pooris or a plate of Dal - Chawal. Tempering is added to even cold dishes, like a raita, where yoghurt is whisked to a slightly runny consistency and flavoured with Indian spices and vegetables. A garlic tempering is added to a ‘Burani Raita’, Onion tempering is added to ‘Tadka Dahi’, or a mix of chopped tomatoes and cucumber is added along with the tempering, with mustard seeds, heeng, cumin seeds, and dried red chillies to prepare a ‘Tadka Dahi’ or a ‘Tadke wala Raita’. 

Indian cuisine’s tryst with the tempering or tadka is a long and flavourful tale of herbs and spices giving a unique edge to Indian dishes, and are loved worldwide for the same. Indian tadka is evidently an important factor in various cuisines of India. Thus, it’s not surprising that the word ‘Tadka’ finds its place in the names of many Indian cuisine restaurants worldwide. Tadka gives the dishes their taste and flavour and enhances the visual appeal of culinary preparations it’s added to. Indian cuisines encompass unique culinary wisdom, amalgamating various flavours and cooking styles, of which ‘tadka’ is an inalienable and celebrated culinary practice. 

Sidharth Bhan Gupta, Founder of 361 Degrees Hospitality, is a Hospitality / Food and Beverage / Restaurant Consultant, Travelling across India on a Cultural and Culinary Exploration.