Tarka,Tadka, Chaunk, Dhungar: Tempering Spices & Making Dal

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One of my favourite ways of spicing lentils is tarka.  The term tarka also goes by the name of tadka or chaunk read  wiki here, is a very good way of spicing food, not just legumes.  The tarka method is a good way of delivering the spice flavour as fat is a good transporter for them and closing the lid means trapping the fragrant vapour.

Searching the net I discovered the dhungar method of using a hot coal placed on top of a hollowed onion (could be a tiny metal dish also). The hot coal is place in the middle of the cooked dish and the aromatics are then placed directly on top of the hot coal releasing their vapour while a lid is placed on top to trap it.  Have a look at this chef doing it with paneer kebabs here, it’s not in English but no need for translation.

You may also be interested what I wrote about roasting spices,  Don’t Dry Roast Spices how the volatile essential oils in the spices are lost when dry roasting.  And in my post Some Spicing Tips where I mention how fat is a good carrier of flavour.  Well here you have the combination of both.  The heating of fat to fry the spices/aromatics and then pouring it over the food and trapping that essential oil vapour by closing with a lid.  You’re maximising the spice flavour.

The Lentils

Having a dialog last week on facebook on the differences of lentils I said I wished someone had put together an index of lentils, and googling today I’ve found one here, it’s handy to know the different names the same lentil goes by.

In the black bowl I have chana dal, I’ve seen it in recipes substituted for yellow split peas, they look similar but it’s a different thing.

Above on the left are yellow split peas with shinier surface, on the right are chana dal.

Above photo left I have the bright coloured yellow chana dal and next to it is the pale urid (urad) dal.  Urid dal is currently a favourite of mine because it cooks within 25-30mins, where I find with chana it takes forever and a day, as I don’t have a pressure cooker.

Also for speed when necessary I use red lentils.

I have access to Indian grocery shops and supermarkets selling different lentils but if you haven’t then use whatever lentils you can.  This is such a great wholesome food to eat it should be made regularly, lentils are good for you, even if I do get accused of being a lentil-eating-tree-hugging-guardian-reading-liberal…

The only criteria for me is the lentils should be of the variety that breakdown giving a porridge-like consistency and not like a Puy lentil, where I want it to stay intact.

How liquid or thick you like your dal is personal, I like mine to be thick and sometimes a meal in itself, often have it for lunch during winter.  I’ve eaten dal very thin, the consistency of cream.

Urid Dal

The spices is up to you, I will tell you what I added with the 2 dals I have here then change and add accordingly to suit.  Above is what I added to the urid dal (top photo in red dish);

  • 1 generous tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp brown/black mustard seeds
  • 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 2 large black cardamon cracked slightly
  • 1 large sprig of fresh curry leaves (not shown in photo)
  • chili (optional)
See below for the cooking of them.  Urid/urad lentils take 25-30mins to cook.

Urid Dal Below.

Only recently discovered the pleasure of black cardamon, with the smokey aroma gained from the process of being dried, I loved it in the dal.  I crack it enough just to open and add the whole pod in.

Ginger, garlic, minced onions are also added to the tempering spices along with curry leaves, but a crushed lemon grass stick is also a good addition.

Cooking the Lentils

The photos below are of chana dal taken about a year ago.  As I’ve mentioned above I find chana takes a long time to cook, good if you have pressure cooker.

The principal I use of cooking the spiced lentils is the same.  I have tried frying an onion and spices at the beginning (as I do for a lot of my curries), and still doing the tarka at the end, but most of the time now I just boil them this way.  I do it for easiness and find the tempering delivers enough flavour for me.  Try it both ways and see which you prefer.

  • 250 grm lentils (2 1/4 generous cups)
  • plenty of water to cover, 600grm/mls (3 cups)
  • 1 teaspoon of fine salt (no, I promise it doesn’t harden the lentils)
  • 1 level teaspoon of turmeric, for colour and health properties

Bring to the boil and boil them on low heat, and cook until the lentil is soft and beginning to fall apart.  If the lentils are getting dry top with more water.

Tomatoes: What I’ve also tried and like is, towards the end of the lentils being ready adding some chopped fresh tomatoes, 2-3 medium size ones let them breakdown into the lentil and then do the tempering of spices.

I found the chana was soft and broke easily between my fingers after an hour and a quarter of boiling, but in order to speed up the process of breaking down I used a masher to break some of them.

Once the lentils are cooked, check you’re happy with the consistency and check if they have enough salt.

For the tempering spices here I used;

  • 1 tsp cumin seed
  • 1/2 tsp fenugreek
  • 1/2 tsp nigella seeds (black onion seeds)
  • 4 green cardamon pods, crushed
  • 1/4-1/2 tps dried chili or to your liking
  • 1 fat garlic clove, crushed or grated
  • 2 tsp grated fresh ginger
  • 2 sprigs of fresh curry leaves

For the fat you can use oil or ghee (clarified butter).  Ghee will add a richer taste.  Enough to cover the bottom of the pan.

Once the lentils are cooked to the consistency you want, heat the fat and add all the spices/flavourings at the same time let them sizzle for seconds making sure all the spices get coated in the fat and pour over the lentils and cover straight away.

And if you can use a lid without a hole in it!  

Leave them for 5mins and stir it in.  If you want to give the lentils a lush feel add a nob of butter and stir it in.

This winter I’m going to try this method of spicing my beans.

I’ve read that you should skim the lentils while boiling otherwise will make them taste bitter.  I don’t skim and think they taste fine to me, would be interested to hear what other people do?