Tarka, How to Temper Dals For a Smokey Flavour
Tarka Uttar-Pradesh Style
When making dal, people often ask me how to give it the same ‘smoky’ flavour that they have experienced in the ‘tarka dal’ at Indian restaurants. This same flavour wafts up and down the streets of northern India every lunch time, where dals are being ‘tempered’ for lunch in every household. In the state where I come from, onions/ginger/garlic/tomatoes are not a norm for dal tarka. It basically consists of ghee, cumin seeds, asafoetida (of a good quality), whole chillies and chilli powder or coarsely ground chillies. The flavour is from cumin, chillies and asafoetida cooked very, very fast, to smoking point, in HOT ghee/oil and then added to the dal, leaving the smoke to infuse into the dal. Finely chopped/crushed garlic/ginger can be added to the oil in the ladle. This tarka is used for all kinds of dals, and a few other things besides, with minor, personal variations. This recipe shows you how to get the smoky flavour. You have to use a cast iron ladle, as seen in the picture. Like any other cast iron pan you use, don’t wash it in a dishwasher or with abrasives. A well seasoned ladle is the best. It can be bought from large Indian grocers in UK
Quantities given here are for approximately 200 grams of uncooked dal.
A cast iron tarka ladle
Cooked dal of choice
1-2 tbs. ghee or oil, depending upon your needs/taste. Ghee tastes better but oil is fine too.
1 full tsp. cumin/mustard seeds
A pinch or two of asafoetida powder (qualities vary, so ask for the best one available)
2-3 whole red chillies
1/2-1 tsp. chilli powder (adjust to taste)
Measure and keep the ingredients ready.
Heat the ladle on flame/heat source for a few minutes, until quite hot. A ladle that you use regularly, will already give out some smoke.
Add ghee or oil to the ladle. If properly heated, the ghee/oil should give out thick smoke immediately, even inflame. Just take it off the heat for a moment, until flames die. Be careful not to panic and spill ghee/oil on yourself. Hold it away from yourself.
Add cumin and asafoetida powder in quick succession and let the seeds start to splutter. If the oil/ghee was properly heated, this happens immediately.
If using garlic/ginger, add it now and let it cook until nice aroma rises and it begins to turn brown. Do not let it burn, burnt garlic tastes bitter.
Now add whole chillies and chilli powder, quickly stir in, using a tea spoon or fork.
Lift the lid of the dal pan slightly and dip the ladle into the dal and cover with a lid immediately. It will make a sharp, hissing sound and smoke will rise from the dal. Closing the lid is essential to infuse flavours and to stop the dal from splashing all over you.
Keep the lid closed until ready to serve. This will trap the smoke and its flavours into the dal well and your dal will now have a nice, 'smoky' dal.