Tadka (Indian Tempering)

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Tadka or tempering of spices is the reason why Indian food tastes so darn good. This post will teach you this essential technique in a few easy steps.

An overhead shot of ven pongal with a caption Tadka or Tarka - A guide to tempering in Indian cooking
Tadka / Tarka in Indian cooking

What is Tadka or Tarka in Indian Cooking?

Tadka means tempering. This process involves adding spices in hot oil or ghee and allowing it to bloom before it is poured into a dish.

While it is mentioned as tadka on the menus of Indian restaurants, it goes by many other names across the length and breadth of the country where it may be referred to as baghaar, chhaunk, thalipu, vagarane, etc.

Though the names are many, the technique is similar in most regions, albeit, the oil or fat and spices that are used may change from region to region or even one household to another. For example, while ghee is popularly used across the country for tempering, South Indians also use coconut oil while the North and East Indians use either mustard oil or sesame oil. 

What is the purpose of Tadka?

This technique is used simply to enhance the flavor of any dish. When spices are introduced in hot oil, it releases its aroma and flavor into the fat which gets transferred over to any dish that it is added to. 

However, the flavor is not the only reason to use tadka in a dish. The hot fat also helps to activate the medicinal properties of the spices and thus increasing the nutritional value of the dish. 

What are the ingredients used in tadka?

The basic recipe for a tadka includes fat and one or many of the following ingredients –  whole spices, lentils, asafoetida, curry leaves, nuts, and aromatics such as garlic, and onions. Some examples would be – 

  • Mustard seeds
  • Cumin seeds
  • Fenugreek seeds
  • Chilies – both red and green
  • Curry leaves
  • Asafoetida
  • Urad and Chana dal
  • Black cardamom
  • Whole black peppercorns 
  • Bay leaf
  • Cinnamon stick
  • Coriander seeds
  • Nigella seeds
  • Carom seeds
  • Aromatics like Ginger, garlic, tomatoes, and onions
  • Nuts like cashew, peanuts, almonds, etc.

The best fat or oil to use is the one with a high smoking point (such as ghee or coconut oil). Note – oils with high smoking point don’t burn easily.

When is the right time for tadka?

The answer is it depends. Some recipes call for a tempering process at the start such as this aloo gobhi, cabbage poriyal, and dal tadka dishes while in recipes like this coconut chutney, or this cucumber raita, it is poured over the top at the time of serving.

The rule of thumb I follow is if I want to make any recipe a one-pot dish, I usually start with the tempering first. Most folks also start with the tempering process for side dishes such as this plantain dish or aloo matar (potato and peas curry).

When it comes to lentil curries, chutneys, and raitas, adding tempering as a finishing touch works best. 

Tadka dal served in a black bowl along with rice
Tadka Dal

How is tempering done in Indian cooking?

If tempering is done at the beginning of the cooking, use a wok or kadhai. Use a tadka pan, if you are planning to add tadka at the end. 

Tadka Pan
Tadka Pan

Here are some guidelines to the tempering process – 

  1. Allow the oil to heat up before introducing the spices. The spices need to sizzle as soon as it is added to the oil. 
  2. Order is important. Ingredients that cook quickly go last – for example, curry leaves will burn quickly so always add them after the mustard seeds are done sputtering. 
  3. Most spices take only a few seconds to bloom. So move fast and also, keep the ingredients for the tempering ready before you begin
  4. Discard the tempering if the spices get burnt or else your dish will carry over the burnt taste.
  5. Never introduce moisture in any form to a tadka – it will cause a fire. Wipe dry your curry leaves before using. The best way to deal with a fire is to switch off the gas and cut the oxygen supply by covering it with a lid.
  6. Tadka is best used when it is hot – If the tadka is used as a finishing touch, make it after the dish is ready. And, if you are starting your dish with tempering, add the aromatics such as onions and garlic as soon as the spices have sizzled. 

Recipes that use tadka 

  • Tadka added at the beginning
    • Aloo gobi – A Punjabi-style cauliflower and potato curry that you can make in less than 30 minutes using an Instant Pot or over the stovetop.
    • Aloo ki sabji (Indian potato recipe) –  Learn how to make this classic Indian potato recipe in under 30 minutes using a pressure cooker like Instant Pot. 
  • Tadka added at the end
    • Gujarati Kadhi –  a delicious yogurt-based curry that will bowl you over with its sweet and sour taste.
    • Coconut chutney Most South Indian breakfast and snacks can’t do without coconut chutney – a coconut-based dip that we all love to dunk our idli and dosas in.
  1. Best oils for Indian cooking
  2. Spices used in Indian cooking – what to buy and where
  3. Essential tools for Indian cooking

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An overhead shot of Gujarathi kadhi along with rice, rotis and a side of lemon


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