Tarka (also known as tadka, bagari or chownk) is an Indian cooking technique of tempering spices in oil. Tempering spices helps to add a layer of flavour and texture to many Indian dishes and curries. Whole or broken spices are quickly fried in hot oil to release their essential oils and flavour the cooking oil.
A tarka may be poured over lentil dishes (dals) and curries just before serving. Sometimes they are stirred into the dish or left over the top. Some recipes include a tarka at the beginning of the cooking process, before adding meat or vegetables.
Vegetable oils or ghee (Indian clarified butter) are most commonly used for tempering spices. The oil (or ghee) is warmed before adding the spices and then heated to a higher temperature. But for a tarka it’s important that the oil isn’t too hot and preferably not smoking.
Whole spice seeds such as cumin, mustard, fenugreek, fennel and coriander are the most commonly used in a tarka. These can be eaten as part of the dish. Other spices such as cloves, cinnamon quills, cardamom pods, bay leaves and black peppercorns are also used. These spices are not usually eaten and are left at the side of the plate.
Other ingredients may also be added to the tarka oil. Common additions include pureed or grated onions, garlic and ginger, or chopped tomatoes. They are usually added after the spice seeds, depending on the time they take to cook.
Spice seeds are usually cooked in the oil for just a minute or two. Any longer and they may burn which will make them bitter. A good guide is to fry the seeds until they’re sizzling and become fragrant. If you are using mustard seeds, they will start to pop.
The pan should then be removed from the heat and the tarka poured over the finished dish straightaway. Alternatively, if the tarka is required at the beginning of the recipe, the other ingredients are then added. If ground spices are used, frying them for 30 seconds in the oil is sufficient.
Tempering spices in oil is a great way of adding flavours to your cooking. It also helps to use up all those spices at the back of our cupboards!
Try our Turmeric Tarka Dal recipe or add a tarka to your own lentil or curry recipes.