Quick flavor-enhancing techniques are the saving grace of hurried meal-time cooking. As a somewhat lazy cook, I value these gems. My favorite quick-flavor technique comes from Indian cuisine. It has many names depending on where you are in India: tadka, chaunk, baghar, phodni, vagarne and more. In this country we call it “tempering” or “blooming.”
This magical method, at its simplest, simmers a series of spices and aromatic vegetables in fat. The toasting intensifies aromas and flavors and infuses them into the fat. The infused fat delivers a punch of vibrant Big Flavor into a dish with little fuss. This method moves so quickly that it requires close attention to temperature and timing for a successful outcome, neither overcooked (too high heat) or undercooked (too low heat).
My favorite fats for tempering are coconut oil, ghee, avocado and sunflower or unroasted sesame oil. Each has its own unique flavor and smoking point. If a dish will be served hot, coconut oil and ghee are good choices; the other oils are better for room temperature dishes. Like an artist with paints, I keep a favorite collection of whole and ground spices and curry or garam masala powders (masalas); aromatics like onion, chilies, ginger, garlic, shallots and tomato, and herbs like bay or curry leaves in my pantry.
Whole spices take a bit longer to release flavor into a tempering than ground, but they stay fresher longer and taste and are more intensely aromatic. For quick release of flavor, fresh grind or crush whole spices in a mortar with a pestle. Stem, seed and sliver chilies. For tempering, cooks in the southern state of Kerala choose coconut oil, unroasted sesame oil, mustard seeds, curry leaves, grated coconut or dried flakes and peeled, split lentils like urad dal or chana dal, which when fried golden impart a nutty aroma; northern Punjabi cooks combine cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, clove, ginger, garlic and onion. Eastern Bengali cooks combine black mustard seed, cumin seed, nigella seed, fennel seed and fenugreek seed.
Think of a tempering as a layer (or two) of flavor. Indian cooks use tempering in several ways: to form the base flavor of a dish, to pour into a dish and simmer, to pour onto a cooked dish as garnish or to correct the seasoning of a too bland dish. When cooks prepare a tempering as a base it’s a “reverse tempering.” The tempering infuses flavor into the fat and as the dish cooks and that flavor expands into the dish.
For even more convenience, prepare a tempering ahead and refrigerate it. Bloom whole spices, onion, ginger, chilies and ground spices in hot fat as the first step to build the base for simple spiced dishes. Toss this base with stir-fried shrimp, simmer it in cooked dal or toss on warm basmati rice or steamed cauliflower. A tempering base is the first key to discovering and unlocking the flavor of spices and aromatics…and to infusing them into simple food.
If you love Indian seasoning, but feel helpless when confronted with the wild array of seasonings, experimenting with tempering can ease you into the world of Indian spices. Traditionally an Indian cook might prepare a simple tempering to top a soup, raita or chutney, to toss into cooked lentil dal or onto freshly cooked basmati rice or cooked vegetables. Tempering is an ideal cuisine-crossing method; you may play with it in so many ways and in so many dishes. Tempering’s versatility shines when curry-infused coconut oil is tossed on popcorn or fennel seed, shallots, ginger and chilies infuse olive oil to dress pasta. Drizzle ghee infused with fresh parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme over mashed potatoes or atop hot polenta or a stew.
This unique process of cooking a series of aromatic seasonings, spices or herbs quickly in hot fat is a small part of what makes Indian cooks remarkable magicians of seasoning. Now you too may easily embrace tempering as an prized part of your quick flavoring repertoire.
Poriyal and Thoran: South Indian Stir-Fry
Both poriyal and thoran are served as a dry side dish with rice and curry. Vegetables for poriyal and thoran can be diced or shredded and are sautéed, steamed or braised in natural juices. Typical seasonings for a poriyal are brown mustard seed, cumin seed, coriander seed, urad dal, lentils or split peas, onion, turmeric, masala and dry red chili. Both dishes are cooked with shredded coconut, but thorans have no lentils or split peas.
Paired with steamed rice and lentil sambhar, thoran makes a full meal. Prepare thoran with shredded or finely diced beets, cauliflower, zucchini, eggplant, green beans or green plantains. Or substitute 1 cup shredded carrots for 1 cup of the cabbage. Serve this with grilled or fried fish or seafood, dal and rice.
Yields 4 cups, 4 to 6 servings
3 T. coconut oil
1 T. dark mustard seeds
3-inch dried red chili, stemmed, seeded, and broken
1/2 C. peeled and slivered shallots
1/4 C. stemmed, seeded and slivered jalapeño chili
3/4 t. turmeric
20 curry leaves
1/2 to 3/4 C. dried, unsweetened coconut flakes
6 to 8 C. packed, trimmed and finely sliced green cabbage
Heat coconut oil in 6-quart pot over medium-low heat. When oil is hot, add mustard seeds. Cook until they sizzle then pop and sputter, 30 to 45 seconds. Add red chili, shallots and green chili. Cook until shallots brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle in turmeric and cook 30 seconds.
Stir in curry leaves and coconut flakes; season with a little salt. Continue to stir-fry until leaves wilt and coconut begins to color 30 to 60 seconds. Stir in cabbage, 1 to 2 tablespoons water and fry in tempering base until wilted, 2 minutes. Add more water as needed to keep vegetables from sticking. Cover pot, reduce heat and simmer thoran until cabbage is tender and completely wilted, 10 to 20 minutes.
Remove pan from heat, stir, replace lid, and rest thoran to develop flavors 5 minutes. Taste thoran and season with salt and lime juice. Serve warm.
Note: You can find curry leaves refrigerated at Indian groceries. These aromatic and enticing narrow green leaves look like a long bay leaf. They are indispensable for true South Indian flavor, but can be difficult to find. Refrigerated, curry leaves last only a week or two before blackening. Freezing turns them to mush. There is another way: Place fresh leaves in a storage container in the refrigerator. Leave the lid ajar so there is airflow. The leaves will dry, but retain much of their scent and flavor. After the leaves dry, seal the storage container and keep refrigerated. They will keep flavor several months.
Tempered Squash-Dal Soup
My potluck go-to. The small yellow onions contain less moisture therefore brown more quickly. Shallots are a good substitute; they also brown quickly. Vary the seasonings to your taste!
Yields 6 to 8 servings
2-1/2 to 3 lb. butternut squash or 4 cups mashed baked squash
1 C. pink split and skinned lentils (masoor dal)
1 C. coconut milk
3 to 4 T. coconut oil
1 T. dark mustard seed
Optional: 1 T. kalonjii/nigella seed
2 medium yellow onions, halved, peeled and slivered
1 T. peeled and minced or grated ginger
1 T. curry powder (Oryana carries a good one in bulk)
1 T. ground coriander
2 t. ground cumin
1 t. turmeric
1 t. ground ginger
Garnish: freshly squeezed juice of 1 medium lime
1/2 C. finely sliced cilantro
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Slice squash in half lengthwise; scrape out seeds. Place squash cut side down in a glass or stainless pan. Place in oven and bake until very tender, about 1 hour. Remove from oven to cool. Measure out 4 cups packed, mashed squash and set aside.
Pour lentils into a 6 to 8-quart soup pot. Stir in 3 cups cold water and bring lentils to a simmer. Cover and simmer lentils until tender and falling apart, 20 minutes. Stir in coconut milk and mashed squash. Continue to simmer lentil-squash while you prepare the tempering.
Tempering: Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. When hot, stir in seeds. They will sizzle. After 30 seconds, stir in onion, raise heat to medium and cook onion until soft and lightly browned. The seeds should pop. Stir in ginger and ground spices and allow them to sizzle/toast until they begin to stick, 1 minute. Pour in 1/2 cup water, remove from heat and scrape mixture into lentil-squash. Simmer 15 minutes. Add water as needed to achieve soup consistency. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Stir in lime juice and cilantro just before serving.
Prepare tempering mixture separately and refrigerate or freeze for later use. It forms a delicious base that can begin any Indian dish. Use alone or add other seasonings. You might also prepare this dish instead with cubed fish or chicken.
Yields about 4-1/2 to 5 cups, 6 servings
Tempering (Yields about 1-1/2 cups, enough for 2 pounds seafood, meat or vegetables)
6 T. ghee
1 t. dark mustard seeds
1 t. cumin seeds
1 lb. small yellow onions, finely slivered, about 4 cups packed
2 T. peeled and minced gingerroot
1/2 T. peeled and minced garlic
1 large serrano or jalapeño chili, stemmed, seeded and slivered
For the shrimp
1 T. ghee
2 lb. 36/40 or 26/30 shrimp, peeled and deveined
Freshly squeezed lime juice
Optional garnish: Finely sliced cilantro
To Serve: Hot basmati rice or chapattis
Tempering: Heat ghee over medium-low heat in a heavy 14-inch skillet or large wok. When ghee is hot stir in seeds and sizzle 30 seconds. Raise heat to medium, stir in onions and fry, stirring frequently, until lightly golden, 5 to 10 minutes. If they begin to burn, lower heat. (The seeds should pop.) Stir in ginger, garlic and chili and cook until tender, 30 to 60 seconds. Season with salt. Scrape mixture into a bowl and set aside. Drain off 1 tablespoon ghee.
Set wok or skillet back on burner on medium-high heat. Drizzle in 1 tablespoon reserved ghee. When ghee ripples and is hot, add shrimp and stir-fry until seared and almost opaque. Stir in tempering and heat through until shrimp are fully cooked, but don’t overcook; they will become rubbery. Season shrimp with salt, freshly ground pepper and lime juice to taste. Pile shrimp onto platter, garnish with optional cilantro and serve with hot rice or chapattis.
Spiced Potatoes (Masala Aloo)
Substitute cauliflower for the potatoes for a lighter dish.
Yields about 7 cups
3 lb. medium-sized baking potatoes, scrubbed
4 T. oil or ghee
3 t. brown mustard seeds
2 t. cumin seeds
2 to 3 T. stemmed, seeded and diced jalapeños
1/2 t. ground turmeric
1 C. peeled and finely diced small yellow onions
2 t. Punjabi Garam Masala
1/4 C. fresh or frozen green peas
1/2 C. finely sliced cilantro
Place potatoes in small saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring potatoes to a boil, reduce heat, and cook until a knife inserts easily but potatoes still hold together, 10 to 15 minutes. Peel potatoes and dice into 1/4- to 1/2-inch cubes, about 7-1/2 to 8 cups. alternatively, dice potatoes, steam until tender, about 5 minutes and peel.
Tempering: heat ghee or oil in 6-quart pot or 10-inch, deep skillet over medium heat. Pour in seeds and chili. Cook until seeds sputter and chili softens, 30 to 45 seconds. Stir in onions, turmeric and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Cook until onions are soft.
Fold diced potatoes into pot or pan and turn to mix well, mashing lightly to break up potatoes. cook until potatoes begin to brown. If using for stuffing, break up a bit more. For a side dish, leave larger pieces of potato. Fold in garam masala and season with kosher salt to taste, about 1 teaspoon. Fold in peas and/or cilantro.
Punjabi Garam Masala
This roasted spice mixture may be added as a top seasoning to any dish. With its collection of warming spices pre-roasted there is no need for long cooking.
Yields a generous 3/4 cup
3 T. cumin seeds
3 T. coriander seeds
2 T. black peppercorns
1 T. ground cardamom
1 cinnamon stick, 4 inches long, crushed
1 T. fennel seed
2 t. chopped nutmeg
1/4 t. wholesale clove
Toast spices separately in a dry skillet until fragrant and one shade darker. Cool and grind together in spice grinder. Store garam masalas in 2 separate airtight jars in cool, dark spot.