An indispensable part of most Indian meals, the dal aka daal or dhal, is the only comforting food that transcends all year round – be it on a hot summer evening or a dark winter's night. This simple, soupy and wholesome bowl of goodness is ghar ka khanna at its best.
In almost every Indian home, the whistle of the pressure cooker signals that a dal dish is in the making. In India, dal technically stands for a split pulse and is used as an umbrella term for dried peas and beans, as well as the dishes in which they play the star ingredient. Regardless of the type – masoor, tur, urad, moong or chana dal – they all boast a high nutritional profile. And thanks to their versatility, they can take on just about anything – from vegetables and meats to spices.
Also read: How to store lentils the right way
What is Tadka?
While almost all dal dishes pack a warming glow in every bite, on its own, this rich and creamy preparation could surely get as boring as rice. But like that bowl of plain rice, the variations are almost endless. The secret is in its tempering aka tadka. A common addition to any dal – the tadka or tarka (also known as baghaar in Hyderabad, vaghar in Gujarat, phodni in Maharashtra, torka in Kolkata, baghaara or chhunka in Oriya) – is a mix of spices sautéed in butter, oil or ghee (clarified butter) until they sizzle. This is then folded into the earthy lentil soup, just before serving.
Cooking these spices separately from the dal may sound like an unnecessary step but ask any home cook or chef, and they’ll jump to tell you how the tadka is significant to most Indian cooking as it helps to intensify the flavour and aroma. The end result is an incomparably flavoursome meal. The tadka is thus an added method or technique used to extract and then pass on the flavour and aroma of the spices to the oil or ghee (since they both act as good vehicles), and from these carriers to the dish in the making. Tadka is not reserved just for dals, its goodness can also extend to vegetables, chutneys, curries, gravies and raita.
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The ingredients in the tadka for each variety of dal vary from region to region and home to home. However, mustard seeds and curry leaves are a regular feature in south Indian cooking, while cumin seeds and asafoetida are preferred in the northern parts. Typically, onion, garlic, tomatoes, ginger, coriander leaves, ginger, tamarind, curry leaves and coconut usually find their way into many dal tadka variations. Some versions even call for the addition of lemon juice or mango powder (amchoor).
Also read: How to make dal makhani at home
Art of Making Tadka
The most important step in preparing dal is cooking it long enough. Mothers usually insist on first soaking the dal or legumes for a few hours, if not overnight, and then cooking them long enough till they reach an oatmeal-like consistency. It’s best to opt for fresh legumes as they take a shorter time to cook. To turn the bland lentil porridge into a masterpiece of flavour, all you’ve got to do is focus on the tadka. However, getting the tadka right is not as easy as it may sound. Heat the spices for a little too long and your supposedly fragrant blend will turn into a charred mess.
If sautéed for a short while, the flavours won’t really blossom. The trick is to pour in the oil or ghee only after the pan is hot. Immediately follow it up with the addition of whole spices and fry till they start to sizzle. Check for these signs – whole cinnamon sticks begin to unfurl, cumin and coriander seeds turn a shade darker, cardamom pods puff, mustard seeds pop or splutter, and dried chillies begin to brown – and all of this happens in just a few seconds!
After the whole spices begin to leave a fragrance, add in the onions, ginger, garlic or ingredients of choice. Add in the powdered spices towards the end as they tend to burn easily. Ground spices don't need more than a second or two to cook. Remember to keep stirring to help all the spices cook evenly.
Also read: Insta-approved ways to have dal makhani
This one technique is at the heart of Indian cooking and no matter what name it goes by, the method of frying spices along with other ingredients in hot oil, ghee or butter and adding them to a dish is pretty much the same throughout India. The only difference is in the type of oil and spices used. These are some of the most common types of dal tadka you can choose from:
Cumin Seeds Tadka
Once the oil is hot enough, throw in some cumin seeds. Once they begin to splutter, add chopped garlic and green chillies. Before the garlic burns, add chopped onions and cook till they turn translucent. Some recipes suggest adding tomatoes, but this is optional. If you choose to add tomatoes, cook till they are soft and the water has evaporated. Then add the dry spices – coriander powder, red chilli powder and black pepper. At times, chopped ginger is added, just before turning off the heat.
Mustard Seeds Tadka
When the oil is hot enough, sprinkle asafoetida (optional), followed by mustard seeds, cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, bay leaves, curry leaves, green chillies, and finally dry spices – turmeric and chilli powder. These ingredients can be tweaked according to your choice or depending on the dal variation. At times, tomatoes, garlic and ginger are added as well.
Red Chilli Tadka (Mirchi ka Tadka)
This is another tadka variation that’s common in the north – especially in Kashmir. Heat the desired amount of ghee or melted butter, throw in cumin seeds and allow them to crackle. Next, add crushed red chillies or red chilli powder, asafoetida and chopped garlic and fry for a few minutes or until the garlic begins to brown and chillies change colour. Some recipes even call for the addition of a dash of kasuri methi powder, however, this is optional. This spice mix is cooked on a slow flame to make sure the ingredients don’t burn.
Caramelised Onion Tadka (Bhuna Pyaz ka Tadka)
This dal tadka variation only calls for the addition of onions, however, the secret is in cooking them just well enough so that they help do the trick. In a heated pan, pour the desired amount of oil and when hot, throw in sliced onions. Keep stirring or shaking the pan so as to not burn the onions, and keep cooking them for at least 7 to 8 minutes on medium-high heat or until they become dark brown.
Onion and Tomato Tadka (Pyaz aur Tamatar ka Tadka)
In a heated pan, add the oil of your choice, and throw in some chopped onions and minced garlic. Sauté on medium-high heat for a few minutes or until the onions begin to caramelise or turn light brownish in colour while stirring continuously. Once done, in go the chopped tomatoes, chopped green chillies and grated ginger. Let these ingredients cook while trying to mash the onions and tomatoes with the help of a spatula. Once the tomatoes are soft enough, take off the heat.
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