Heat your oil of choice, sprinkle in some black mustard and cumin seeds, and watch as they temper and splutter and pop.Chrrr ... splat ... POP.
That oil has now imbibed the savory, nutty flavors of the spices and is ready to cast its spell on the next set of ingredients: lentils, onions, and garlic. Or tomatoes and whatever vegetables you have in your pantry. Or if you're Priya Krishna, dahi toast.
Akin to a Spanish or Puerto Rican sofrito, tadka is the general starting step in my daily cooking, an easy way to infuse incredible flavor into any dish. In many regional Indian recipes, tadka is added at the end to amp up the creaminess. There is even a special tadka pot for this, which you will find in almost any Indian household.
In Maharashtra, the Western Indian state where I'm from, tadka is poured over a salad called koshimbir, just before serving. Acting like a vinaigrette, it brings all the disparate vegetables together and makes them sweat delicious, soppy juices.
Recently an idea shot into my head. (Remember Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood and the hypnotizing arrow scene? Exactly like that.) I thought, what if I used tadka instead of oil in my salad dressing?
My usual suspects were there: lime juice, honey, and tahini; salt and pepper to taste. But rather than streaming in cold extra-virgin olive oil, I whisked in a cooled-down tadka I had made just moments earlier.
Tadka salad dressing was a revelation. The spice-infused oil added an extra, wonderful layer of taste and complexity to my weeknight salad. Textural variety is something I absolutely want everywhere, but especially in my salad: leafy lettuce, crunchy cucumbers and pears, juicy tomatoes, soft-fresh mozzarella, briny green olives, chewy raisins and cranberries and pepitas and sunflower seeds and ... have I sold you yet? The fried mustard and cumin seeds introduced a pleasant bite as well, and again, flavor.
But you don't have to stick to mustard and cumin seeds. Depending on the region and household, tadka is made with all manner of other spices, including fenugreek, nigella, and carom seeds—individually or in combination. Fenugreek seeds become dark and toasty when heated in oil and bring a potato chip–like crunch to salads, along with a touch of savory bitterness. Nigella seeds are reminiscent of oregano, onion, and sesame. Carom seeds, though pungent and tongue-numbingly spicy when raw, become mild when tempered and bathe whatever it touches with fennel-like flavor.
When it comes to tadka, the world is your oyster. Go to town with the spices you like: coriander or celery seeds, cloves, peppercorns, thyme, curry leaves, bay leaves. If you want some heat, feel free to add sliced green chile peppers, too (pop them into the oil just before turning off the heat). Mix and match to identify and test new flavor combinations—and don’t forget to remove miscreants like peppercorns before making the salad dressing.
What do you use tadka for? Let us know in the comments below.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).