In Tadka We Trust

Each drop is a sensory universe. Here’s how the technique as old as time came to define South Asian cuisines.

Mehr Singh

January 12, 2023

In Tadka We Trust
A bowl of tadka dal (WikiMedia Commons)

In March 2020, time was beginning to feel like a flat circle. After making a surfeit of no-knead focaccia recipes and enough banana bread to feed a small country, I decided it was time to engross myself with the cooking method I thought I knew everything about, and bought my first tadka pan. Tadka, bagar, vaghar, rogan, oggarane, chaunky, or chhonk refers to the ancient process of tempering spices like cinnamon and bay leaf in hot fat. The result is a harbinger of warm, comforting flavors that breathe new life into even the most uninspiring meals. After the oils, ghee, butter, or a combination are heated to a specific temperature to coax out maximum flavor from spices, legumes, and seeds, the tadka maker will hear a successive orchestra of pop, snap, and crackle. Think sunflower-yellow dal finished with curry leaves bloomed in ghee, rice drizzled with peppery cumin, or even box-origin mac and cheese dotted with fiery Kashmiri chilies and fried onions. To this day, most dishes from the subcontinent begin or end with tadka. Glossies and Western food media often misrepresent tadka as a garnish, an afterthought, when in reality, it forms the bedrock of South Asian foodways.