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I am trying to understand the tadka (tempering) technique or procedure Indian meals. Is the a specific order in which spices go in in order to avoid overcooking some which are more delicate? I understand that for example the cumin seeds will usually go in first. Some tadka also include cilantro - that would obviously go in towards the end. Is there a general procedure to follow? I would also be happy for some book tips that focus on the techniques used in Indian cuisine, not just concrete recipes.

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    Do they really include cilantro (i.e. leaf)? Or are you asking that from a translation of coriander, which applies to the seed as well (and the seed is commonly used in this sort of thing) – Chris H Apr 30 at 11:38
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    I've seen some that included cilantro, but it could have been a mistake on part of the recipe author. Also in some cases they make the initial mixture with diced tomatoes and ginger etc. to start cooking dal - might've been there I saw it. But it puzzled me like you, because things like cilantro leaves you normally only add only at the very end, otherwise almost all of the flavor is lost. – VoY Apr 30 at 11:46
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    I know some rules of the thumb from central European cuisine, like for example only to briefly coat sweet paprika with oil, otherwise it gets bitter. I am looking for similar such rules for Indian to allow me to cook more with instinct rather than according to recipes. – VoY Apr 30 at 11:48
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The general rule of thumb is to put spices that burn easily in the end. Black mustard seeds are often added, in which case add the mustard seeds to hot oil first. Once the mustard seeds stop popping, turn the heat down, add urad dal (white lentil), dried red chillies, cumin, and turmeric. Of course, your tadka may not have all ingredients that I've listed (or may have others that I haven't). I generally add turmeric last because it burns the most easily. South Indian tadkas often add fresh curry leaves. Those can be added right after the mustard seeds (they splatter, so one has to be careful).

  • Thanks a lot for the insights. I am wondering, if you had to name 3-5 basic ingredients to use to make tadka, what would be the really indispensable ones? I know you can go really fancy and layer a lot of different flavors, but it is a little overwhelming for a beginner without anyone to emulate. Maybe something like cumin seeds,, ginger, garlic, coriander powder, garam masala and turmeric could already be a decent start? Roughly in that order? – VoY Apr 30 at 21:06
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    It depends on the regional style of cooking. For example, north Indian cooking often uses cumin, turmeric, and garlic. South Indian cooking, on the other hand, almost always uses mustard seeds and curry leaves. Asafoetida is used throughout the country. You could add a combination of any of the other spices you've listed (ginger, though, is not common in a tempering). If there's a specific dish you want to add tadka to, I may be able to guide you better. – Avinash Bhat Apr 30 at 21:36
  • Right now I am just looking at adding tadka to my dal. I am not aiming at any specific regional style of cooking, I just want to have some really nicely and authentically flavored legume dish. Things like asafoetida or curry leaves are kind of exotic to me in a sense that I wouldn't have much use for them except this one dish. What I do have most of the time is jeera, garlic, ginger, garam masala, turmeric, chilli powder etc. – VoY May 2 at 8:56
  • For dal, for a simple tadka, use cumin seeds, turmeric, and garlic. Heat a 1–2 tbsp of oil, add cumin seeds. Once cumin seeds sizzle, add garlic (preferably chopped), and then add turmeric. Let the turmeric sit in the oil only for a few seconds and then add the tadka to your dal. You can add garam masala and/or coriander powder to the dal directly, without frying it. – Avinash Bhat May 2 at 16:32
  • That sounds like a great start, thank you Avi. When you say into your dal, do you mean pulses cooked in water without additional flavoring or is the cooking process started with a similar ghee/spices mixture there as well? I mean, is dal a meal on it's own into which tadka is added or does that just mean essentially cooked legumes? – VoY May 2 at 20:05

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