Indian cooking really isn’t that complicated, and it’s incredibly forgiving to the beginning Indian chef because the use of spices makes every dish delicious. That said, there are several techniques it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with as you begin to explore this adventurous and rewarding cuisine.
Tadka or Baghar: Tempering
The process of tempering involves blooming spices in hot ghee in order to add marvelous, deep flavor to food. This technique is used to add enhance the flavor of vegetables, daals, chutnes, raita, and other dishes; the timing depends on the type of dish. For example, for vegetables dishes, tadka is done in the beginning, whereas with daal, it is added on top at the end.
Every region of India adds different items to tadka, but the most common are whole mustard and cumin seeds. In Northern India, onion and garlic may be used. In Southern India, it’s common to use shredded coconut and curry leaves. Other spices commonly added include asafoetida and chilis.
To create a tarka, heat the ghee until it is almost smoking, reduce the heat, and add the spices. As they cook (bloom), they will change color and become very aromatic. The correct order to add things to a tadka is: alliums, whole spices, herbs, powdered spices.
Dum means to ‘breathe in’ and is an Indian method of steaming by closing a round, heavy-bottomed pot with a lid and slowly cooking over a low flame. In this technique, the food cooks in its own steam and the slow-roasting enables each the spices and herbs to release their full flavor into the dish.
In modern-day cooking, using a cast iron oven with a heavy lid is an effective way to seal and slow cook this type of dish. However, in traditional Indian cooking, a clay pot (or handi) was sealed with wheat flour dough to make sure steam was trapped inside, preserving the aroma and maturing the flavors.
This Indian cooking technique is a bit like Asian stir frying, as it requires constant stirring over medium to high heat, but the goal is to create a thick, spiced paste, which can be thinned into a gravy. It starts with heating ghee in a frying pan and then adding meat or vegetables, along with spices. Continue to stir as the mixture browns, and add liquid to deglaze several times. The goal is to deepen the flavor by browning and thickening the ingredients, but not letting them burn. The result is rich flavor!
In this North Indian technique, a small bowl with a piece of lit charcoal is placed inside of a larger vessel on top of the cooking food. A small amount of ghee is poured over the coal and then the whole thing is covered with a lid to trap the smoke inside and infuse the food with smoky flavor.
Talina or Talna: Deep-frying
In the Indian method of deep-frying, fresh oil or ghee is used each time (not saved), and food is fried in small batches in only 1-2 inches of oil—just enough to immerse the food.
A tandoor is a North Indian clay oven that is used to cook naan or marinated meat using a hot charcoal fire. The food cooked in a tandoor oven is roasted and smokey.