My daughter, Morganna, is taking a class called “World Foods,” which is not surprising, because she aspires to follow in my footsteps and go into culinary arts as a career. The class, as near as I can tell, is a way to get kids to take Home Economics and learn about other cultures at the same time. It is a pretty hip and happenin’ kind of concept–you teach an important life skill–cooking–with emphasis on food safety and measurements and all those important things, while keeping kids interested by teaching them about the foods and cultures from around the world.
Anyway, each student in the class picks a country and then does a final research project on the cuisines of that country. They have to write a paper on the culture and cuisines, with emphasis on the history of the cuisine, how it developed, the holidays celebrated in that country and what foods are eaten on those holidays. They have to do an oral presentation as well, and cook a representative recipe from the country which everyone in the class gets to sample.
Morganna chose India, and so she has been reading my Indian cookbooks, and we started working together on teaching her about the spices and cooking traditions of the various regions.
Yesterday, I taught her the important technique of making a tarka, which is also spelled tadka.
A tarka is vegetable oil or ghee (butter which is clarified–in the clarification process, the milk solids are allowed to brown, imparting to the clarified butter a distinctive nutty aroma and flavor) which has been flavored with spices and aromatics, and which is poured, hot, into a dish. It is most often used in raitas and dals (raita is a yogurt-based relish dish; dal is a legume dish–both are staples in many Indian regional cuisines), but I have seen it used to flavor chicken recipes as well. As we all know, many spices and aromatic substances have constituents which are oil-soluable, and so not only does the fat add its own flavor and richness into whatever dish into which it is stirred, it also imparts incredible fragrance from the spices bathed within it.
I think of tarka in a lot of ways as an Indian version of the Cajun roux–of course roux is primarily a thickening agent, but in the country cookery of the Cajuns it is a fat-based flavoring agent which adds depth and richness to every dish in which it is used. Unlike the Cajun recipes, however, which start out with the direction, “Well, first, you make a roux,” tarka is made at the last minute, right before the dish is served.
The operation of making a tarka is simple.
In a frying pan or wok, you melt a quantity of ghee or heat vegetable oil. Or, you can mix them. Not surprisingly, I prefer ghee, though I will admit that I generally mix it with vegetable oil in order to lower the amount of saturated fat in the recipe.
Then, you add onions, if you are using them, and cook them until they are golden brown. At that point, you may add whatever other aromatics, such as garlic, chiles and ginger, and whole spices. You continue cooking, stirring the entire time, until the onions are a deep reddish brown and smell quite nutty.
At that point, you simply scrape the contents of the pan into the pot where your other dish is cooking or waiting, and stir, then serve it forth.
It is a very simple way to create an extremely flavorful dal, and depending on what spices or aromatics you use, you can change the taste infinitely. For some dals, I use only mustard seed and whole cumin. For others, I might add fennel seed or ajwan. Most of the time, I use the onions, but sometimes I prefer to use only ginger. I always use chiles, but others never do.
Here is a very simple recipe for masoor dal–those are the pretty red-orange split, skinned lentils–that gets most of its flavor from tarka. I used to cook this one for my Pakistani clients all the time, and would change around the vegetables I added to the lentils. They enjoyed the variety and surprise of seeing which vegetables I used, but they always insisted that I use the same tarka, because they liked it so much.
1 1/2 cups masoor dal, picked over and rinsed
water (or vegetable broth) to cover lentils
generous pinch asafoetida
salt to taste
1 cup very ripe cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup ghee or vegetable oil or a combination of the two
1 large yellow onion, sliced very thinly
1-3 chile peppers (I used very ripe and hot jalapenos) thinly sliced
1″ cube fresh ginger, cut into fine julienne
4-6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1/2 tablespoon cumin seeds
handful roughly chopped cilantro
In a large saucepan, put masoor dal and enough water or vegetable broth to cover it by about three inches. Bring to a boil, turn down and simmer, uncovered. Add pinch of asafoetida and simmer until the lentils are cooked and the water has mostly boiled away. You should be left with a thick, moderately liquid yellow puree.
Add salt to taste. Stir in the tomatoes, and keep the lentils warm.
In a wok or frying pan, melt ghee over medium high heat. When it is hot, add onions, and cook, stirring, until they turn a nice golden brown. At this point, add the chiles, ginger, garlic and spices, and cook, stirring constantly, until the onions are reddish brown and the mustard seeds start to sizzle and pop. (Yes, they pop–kind of like miniature popcorn kernels.)
At this point, stir the tarka into the dal, and serve immediately, garnished with cilantro.
Asafoetida is a spice traditionally used in the cooking of legumes in India. It is a resin, and to some, it has a foul odor. I find it to be pleasantly pungent, however, and do not see why others might be offended. It smells rather like browned onions in oil, and is, in fact, used by the Brahmin caste to flavor thier foods in lieu of garlic and onions, two foods which they feel ignite the baser passions of the body, and are thus not pure. I am not a Brahmin, so I use all asafoetida, onions and garlic, which may be overkill, but it sure does taste good.
Instead of, or in addition to tomatoes, you can use string beans, eggplant, mushrooms or summer squash. If you use summer squash, you can add it to the tarka, thinly sliced and browned to a deep color–this adds further flavor to the dish. Or, you can use shredded greens or spinach instead.
Vegetable broth adds a lot of flavor to this dish in a subtle way. Chicken broth is also good, and in fact, I used to add browned cubes of chicken to the dish to make a one-dish lunch for my client while I worked on other meals. She used to put basmati rice in the cooker, and then made me sit down and have lunch with her while curries simmered away on every burner of her stove, and casseroles and meatloaf baked in the oven. It really did make a very nice lunch, though I think I had as much fun with her company as I did with the food.
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