How to Make Indian Tadka or Tarka?
I will let you in on a little secret, from my family to yours. Various Northern Indian curries start with making an incredible “tadka” or base for the dish. A few extra ingredients or spices may be added to the “tadka,” but generally, the base ingredients for Northern Indian curries remain the same. This method creates that explosion of flavors we seek in Northern Indian food. Put simply, master the tadka, master the art of Northern Indian home cooking!
What is tadka, you may ask? Depending on the region and people referring to the technique, the name may vary from “tadka” to “tarka” to other variations. But no matter where one is from and what this technique is called, it refers to the same thing.
Tadka is the technique of blooming the spices in hot ghee or clarified butter to catalyze the release of their natural oils. Blooming imparts intense fragrance and strong flavors to the oil. This process only takes a minute. Some cooks will tell you to bloom the spices in ghee or butter first before adding the onions, garlic, and ginger, which is likely the case for some Indian dishes.
However, according to my ancestors, we do it a bit differently for Northern Indian cuisine. We clarify the butter, cook down the onions, garlic, and ginger in the clarified butter, then add the spices to bloom them. The result is an aromatic brown paste of caramelized onions, garlic, and ginger, which becomes the foundation of the dish. This is what we refer to as the “tadka.” We use this to make curry chicken, sabji, dal, and other classic Northern Indian dishes.
The onions, garlic, and ginger act as vehicles for the spices, so they don’t burn as quickly when cooked in oil or butter. Visit the “need-to-know” section below for all the tips and tricks you must learn to make successful Northern Indian dishes at home.
Note, that the recipe below yields one cup of tadka, which can be used to make three Indian dishes that serve up to 8-10 people, so don’t be alarmed about the calories.
Traditional Ingredients of a Tadka or Tarka
- Ghee (or Clarified Butter)
- Garam Masala
- Cumin Seeds
- Red Chili Powder
Additional Ingredients that May be Added to the Tadka or Tarka
- Tamarind Paste
- Green Chili Peppers
- Coriander Seeds
- Mustard Seeds
What Vessel to Use
The choice is yours. I prefer a vessel with depth like a pot or a deep saucepan to ensure there is enough room for the spices to dance around the pan when sizzled in clarified butter. It is also essential to use the same pot or pan to cook the dish so that all the flavors of the onions, garlic, ginger, and spices coat the interior of the vessel.
How to Clarify the Butter
To clarify the butter, place a pot on the stovetop at medium-low heat. Add the butter and allow it to melt. As it begins to bubble, a white foam will appear. This white foam is the lactose or milk solids in the butter. Use a large serving spoon to remove the white foam from the butter by skimming it from the top.
We clarify the butter to increase its smoke point. The presence of lactose or milk solids in the butter will cause it to burn more quickly. Therefore, clarifying the butter will increase the butter’s smoke point. This is an essential step as we bloom the spices and cook down the onions, garlic, and ginger for a significant period until it resembles a paste.
Although you may not be able to remove all of the lactose or milk solids, removing some of them will impact the butter’s smoke point.
Be Careful Not to Burn the Spices
Cook the tadka on the stovetop at medium-low heat. The cooking temperature should remain medium-low to low throughout the cooking process. Keep in mind that you will be cooking the ingredients for 30-40 minutes. Allow the spices to sizzle but not burn.
Note that the onions and spices may stick slightly to the pot or pan. Stir occasionally to prevent them from sticking, but this result is expected.
How Do You Know if the Tadka is Done?
The tadka is ready to be used when it becomes a soft succulent brown paste of caramelized onions and peppers with a sweet smell of ginger and cumin to the nose.
Northern Indian Dishes that Use Tadka
- Murgh Makhani (Butter Chicken)
- Curry Chicken
- Moong or Masoor (Lentil) Dal
- Aloo Gobi (Curried Potatoes and Cauliflower)
- Saag Paneer (Curried Leafy Greens and Paneer Cheese)
- 16 tbsp unsalted butter
- 4 yellow onions
- 1 red bell pepper
- 1 green bell pepper
- 8 cloves garlic peeled and minced
- 4 tsp ginger peeled and grated
- 4 green chili peppers thinly sliced
- 2 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp cumin seeds heaping
- 1/2 tsp red chili powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 4 green cardamom pods
- 2 bay leaves
- 12 black peppercorns
- 12 cloves
1. Toast and Grind the Garam Masala
- Break open cardamom pods, discard the shells, and set aside the seeds.
- Place a dry saucepan on the stovetop at medium heat.
- Add coriander seeds, cumin seeds, ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, cardamom seeds, black peppercorns, and cloves to a dry saucepan.
- Dry sauté the spices for 1 minute to toast them.
- Add whole and ground spices to a coffee grinder and grind them into a powder. Set aside.
2. Cut the Vegetables
- Dice the onions, red pepper, and green pepper. Set aside.
- Slice green chiles. Set aside.
- Peel and grate the ginger. Set aside.
- Peel and mince the garlic. Set aside.
3. Clarify the Butter
- Place a pot on the stovetop at medium-low heat.
- Add butter and allow it to melt.
- When it begins to bubble, turn the stovetop to low heat.
- Skim the white foam off the top of the pot with a large serving spoon to remove the lactose or milk solids from the fat.
4. Sauté the Vegetables Slowly in Butter
- Add onions, red pepper, and green pepper to the pot. Increase the stovetop to medium-low heat.
- Allow the vegetables to bubble in the butter softly. Cook for 10 minutes.
- Stir occasionally to ensure they do not stick to the bottom of the pot.
5. Add the Ginger and Garlic
- Add ginger and garlic to the pot. Stir.
- Cook it for 10 minutes.
6. Add the Spices
- Add red chili powder, garam masala, and cumin seeds. Stir occasionally.
- Cook it for 15 minutes.
- It is ready for use.