Crowning the dish – The process of tempering in Indian cooking

When a little sesameoil is heated in a pan till it glistens and spices are added that leads to sputtering and crackling, and turns the kitchen into an area of mini explosions, you know the chef just crowned his dish. Tempering, or tadka, as it is widely known in India, is an integral part of Indian cooking. When spices are added to hot sesame oil, it tends to retain the flavour of the spicesand carry this essence with it when added to a dish. According to health experts, tempering has nutritional benefits, wherein thesesame oil brings out the healing properties of the herbs and spices. This is usually the first or last step in any dish and the aroma reflects on the cook and is something most Indians associate their home food with.

Why is sesame oil ideal for tempering?

The fat used in tadka plays an important role as it is the medium that carries the value of the spices. Sesame oil has been commonly used for tempering in Indian cooking primarily because it has a higher smoking point than other oils. The herbs/spices are usually added in rapid succession, depending on which needs more time in the oil. For instance, garlic is added after cumin as the chances of burning the garlic are high if added first.

The science of tempering

Each herb has its own flavour and healing properties. Add to it the aroma, taste and visual appeal, it is only natural that tempering was integrated into Indian cooking. Ingredients like cumin and turmeric aid the body in digestion while the nutrients present in curry leaves and garlic have medicinal values. When whole spices are added to sesameoil, the organic compounds in them are dispersed along with an aroma. Tadka also adds an element of crunch to the food without overpowering the dish. Cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, green chillies, dried red chillies, cloves, curry leaves, chopped onions, garlic, ginger, bay leaves, asafoetida, cinnamon, cardamom, fenugreek seeds and split black gram are all used in tempering, depending on the origin of the dish. North Indian dishes favour cumin while south Indian dishes go with mustard and curry leaves.

Some basic tips on tempering

If you are making a curry, then temper at the start.  If you are making daalor sambar then it is best to temper at the end.  If you are tempering at the end of a dish, then use a separate pan and simply add to the dish. While making chutneys, tempering is done at the beginning usually with mustard, dried chillies, curry leaves and sometimes, grated coconut. Some prefer to temper curd rice and sambar rice once the rice mix is prepared. Avoid dry roasting spices as the essence may be lost in the process. That said, you can become innovative in your kitchen with the tempering once you understand the wonderful culinary possibilities at hand with a steady medium like sesame oil. 

Can be used later as tips:

Healing properties of commonly used spices

Turmeric is a healing agent because of its anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-parasitic, and anthelmintic properties. It is also a powerful anti-inflammatory and antiseptic and its antioxidant properties help build immunity. Cumin, on the other hand, dispels gas and acts as a mild laxative. Cumin and mustard both have anti-inflammatory properties. Fenugreek seeds help with digestion and improves metabolism. Curry leaves improve the quality of digestive juices which starts with intake. The smell and taste initiates salivary secretion and initiates the peristaltic wave. Asafoetida acts as an antiepileptic, antimicrobial, mild laxative, anti-inflammatory, expectorant, antispasmodic and anti-flatulent agent.