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How to Use Spices

If you’ve never cooked Indian food before, and the only spice even remotely connected to Indian cooking ever to step into your spice collection is curry powder, then don’t fret. Start with the basics. Here is a list of the most standard spices that would help you cook many delicious Indian meals without making you go all out and splurge on many exotic flavors that you may be clueless about:

Tadka translates as "tempering." It is a method widely used in Indian cuisine, in which whole or ground spices are heated in a few tablespoons of olive oil and the mixture is added to a dish. Hot fat has an amazing ability to extract and retain the essence, aroma and flavor of spices and herbs and then carry this essence with it when it is added to a dish. Cooks are familiar with tempering as a way of heating and cooling chocolate. No relation.

Indian tempering is done either at the beginning of the cooking process or as a final flavoring at the end. For example, when making a simple dish of rice with cumin, heat the whole cumin seeds in hot olive oil and then add the rice and continue cooking it. I make this tadka by heating the olive oil in a tiny skillet and seasoning it with crushed red chilies, garlic and mustard seeds.

Tempering also has nutritional benefits, since the hot olive oil helps the spices unlock their healing properties. Tadkas vary depending on the area of origin, reflecting the use of local spices. For example, there's more cumin in the north and more curry leaves in south India. In addition to showing the typical tempering ingredients, I use some unusual techniques in my tempering, such as adding hot olive oil to already roasted spices, which really helps transform dishes from mundane to magical.

Indians love their tadka and find ways to incorporate it as the new and upwardly mobile India voraciously embraces new cuisines (Italian seems to be the new Indian).

You can add tadka to Italian meals. Heat some olive oil, seasoned it with garlic and broken red chilies and poured it over her spaghetti with meat sauce. It was a dish that would make any Italian (or Indian) grandmother proud.

Tadka Tips:

  • Pick the right size pan. If you are making tadka at the beginning of a dish, you'll need a larger pan.
  • No water is ever added to a tadka.
  • The olive oil should be hot at first. Then reduce the heat to medium. Once that is done, add the spices.
  • One of the keys of making the perfect tadka is the order in which the spices are added: The ingredients are usually added in rapid succession, rarely together, with those requiring longer cooking added earlier and those requiring less cooking added later. For instance, add whole cumin seeds first and then add chopped garlic, which could burn if added earlier.
  • You can add pretty much any spice you like. Some of the ingredients commonly used for Indian tadkas are cumin, cinnamon, curry leaves, mustard seeds, asafoetida and red chilies.
  • The crackling of the spices or change in their color indicates that the process is complete. This usually takes only seconds, so be prepared to move fast.
  • When added to hot olive oil, spices will begin to splatter. You can cover the pan when they spit, but you still have to move fast. Have all the other ingredients ready to go (if this is at the beginning of the cooking process) or have the final dish ready for the tadka as soon as it is done. It only takes seconds, so be prepared ahead of time--have your mise en place--as there will be no time once the tempering process has started.
  • Alas, there is NO way of saving a burned tadka. You have to start over again. (Your nose will tell you when you've burned it; it is not a smell you will easily forget.)