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

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by Azélia on 15/11/2011

in Beans / Grains,Featured Sidebar Post,Mains,Quick Recipes,Side Dishes,Vegan,Vegetarian

I’ve recently made 2 posts on spices and now would like to mention one of my favourite ways of spicing lentils; tarka.  Tarka, tadka or chaunk and also known by other names if you look on wiki here, is a very good way of spicing food, not just legumes.

I first noticed it years ago watching a Rick Stein programme where he visits Goa and a cook did tempering of spices over a fish, I had never seen this before but realise now it’s a common practice with lentils.  It’s so simple and so effective for all sorts of foods.

Remember in my post on  Don’t Dry Roast Spices where I talk of the volatile essential oils in the spices that 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.

I’ve only recently 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, skip to 2.30mins into the video and you’ll see the process, it’s not in English but no need for translation.  I’m going to try it next time I have a coal to hand with some marinated cooked meat or fish.

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?

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Bron November 15, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Great post Azelia – I’m with you on the endless love of lentils. What fascinates me is how each lentil has it’s own flavour and texture which affects the consistency of the final dish.

I made a chana dal once believing them to be the same as yellow split peas – dinner was a day late! Looking at your photos the difference is really clear – must learn to do a little research before I turn on the heat ;-)

Joanna November 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Phwoah! I am so going to do this! I once bought dal making kit at Waitrose and it worked beautifully with all the premeasured and metered out dals and spcies but it was expensive and I have the urid and the others sitting in a box in the garage waiting for me to find inspiration. We have lovely Bristol Sweet Mart in St Marks Road and Water Sky the big pan asian supermarket to get all these from and I buy them and then I forget I’ve bought them… Now no excuse. I will make your dal! xx

Monica November 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm

This is not totally unlike my dal with panch phoran. I do not bother skimming the foam. Fresh curry leaves… one of the things that’s NOT easy to get in the country (I love that in London you can buy things like fresh curry leaves and any Indian spice you want and pretty much any Off License… at least, that’s how it was in Stoke Newington).

Gloria November 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm

That looks so fantastic. When’s your book coming out?

Azélia November 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Do try it Joanna, and you’ll discover your own spice mix preferences, its fun experimenting like this with spices.

Azélia November 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm

hi Bron – I have enjoyed reading your tweets about the market stall, great stuff! Yeah very easy to mistake split peas and chana, and you’re right it’s a great discovery the various lentils.

Azélia November 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Gloria – I don’t have your skill! :)

Azélia November 15, 2011 at 6:08 pm

I had a revelation too Monica when starting to use fresh curry leaves! Can’t do without them now!

thelittleloaf November 16, 2011 at 1:07 pm

This sounds wonderful. I’d love to have a go at making proper dal so have bookmarked this post to read properly and digest before venturing into the kitchen. Great recipe.

Renée November 17, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Thank you for a very interesting article, Azélia and all the experiments that you do. I’ll have a go at making proper dal next week when the decorators are in and I can be confined to the kitchen!

Sally November 21, 2011 at 9:20 pm

I have eaten lentils and dals of all sorts daily for the past 2 years ( post Weight loss surgery- and 120 lb loss) I love them to bits- and Indian spice pallette- completely— thanks for this page! and GET YOURSELF A PC- I got one 4 months ago and it was the happiest day of my life in the kitchen! lentils and dal in 8 minutes!

Azélia November 21, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Sally – It is now on my wishlist! :) Congratulations on your successful weightloss, very impressive!

Corrie June 21, 2012 at 2:02 pm

This is a great recipe. I love dahl and have been making it for years. The only way to taste curry leaves is to temper them. Smells devine too…Haven’t tried it with lemon-grass but will definitely try that next time. Lovely blog BTW. :-)

Azélia June 22, 2012 at 10:33 am

Thanks Corrie.

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