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Tempering/Seasoning de-constructed – Part I

The word “tempering” brings to most minds the technique used for the toughening of steel or glass. For the food oriented mind, perhaps the tempering of chocolate or its slow heating and cooling comes to mind. To a mind that spent half its life in South India however, the word “tempering” means yummy food is on its way to one’s belly.

The Kannada word for “tempering” is “vogranne” and the Hindi word is “vagaar”. The similarity I can draw to other well known forms of tempering is that it requires heat. This technique of tempering comes to most South Indian cooks as second nature as does the stocking of tempering ingredients. Having grown up seeing my mum and grandma cook, and having cooked for many years myself, I don’t even have to think of what to add for tempering – it just comes naturally.

It was only recently that I realised that perhaps, it isn’t natural or intuitive to those who are did not grow up like I did. One of the main triggers was my partner going “You keep saying it’s simple but I’ve just counted 8 ingredients that you’ve rattled of. Do you really think it is that simple for me ?” And then, we were at a pub with a bunch of friends and I was having a conversation about Indian food and while describing the process of tempering, I realised how right my partner was. Especially as I realised that the person I was talking to had an expression on his face that read “Oh my God” – poor bugger!

Thus, I make this attempt to “de-construct” this mysterious tempering business. This first attempt is more applicable to South Indian food and I hope to follow it up in the future with a North Indian tempering blog at some point. I have provided the Kannada (my native language) and Hindi names for each ingredient in case your local shop imports them. In addition, there is a long list of pronunciations at the end of this blog and the part II blog to help you when you go shopping for the ingredients below. Finally, I’ve broken this blog into two parts mainly to make it less of a drag to read. Hope you find it informative !

 

Spices used in tempering
Spices commonly used in South India for tempering

Tempering ingredients:

1.Oil or butter

A generous tablespoon of vegetable (canola) oil
A generous tablespoon of vegetable (canola) oil

No tempering is possible without a source of grease. The way tempering works is that the oil/butter work as the medium for transferring heat to the ingredients being cooked in them. In addition, tempering is a very quick process as it is often the finishing touch to a dish. Hence the heat source needs to be very efficient and at the same time not burn the ingredients. The smoke point of common vegetable oils such as canola or refined sunflower oil is quite high and therefore ideal for tempering. Butter takes a little bit longer to achieve the same effect but makes the dish that bit tastier.

In Kannada, oil is called “Yenne” and in Hindi, it is called “Tel”.

To use oil/butter in tempering, you need to heat it for 5-7 minutes.

 

2. Black mustard seeds :

Black mustard seeds
Black mustard seeds

No South Indian kitchen and for that fact, North Indian kitchen is complete without these little black seeds. Available at most Indian supermarkets. Its cousins, the bigger yellow/brown mustard seed are more easily found in local supermarkets. While the brown/yellow ones are OK if you are out of the black seeds, the latter are the more traditional sort. Mustard seeds are high in trace minerals like selenium and manganese that are important in maintaining a healthy immune system and strong bones. While these little buggers are used mainly for tempering/seasoning, they can sometimes be the dominating ingredient.

Mustard, called “aavalu” in a state of south India called Andhra Pradesh is used to make mango pickle and without the dominating flavour of powdered mustard seeds, the pickle wouldn’t taste as it does and be as famous as it is. I remember my mum making a bucketfuls of pickle that would easily last a year or two despite giving away several jars of it. In North India, the tender leaves of the mustard plant called “Sarson” are cooked to make a curry called “Sarson da saag” meaning the greens of the mustard plant. This dish of paired with flatbread made with cornmeal.

The Kannada word for mustard seeds is “sasive” and the Hindi word is “rai”.

To temper mustard seeds, one adds them to hot oil and waits for them to make a popping sound. Beware of popping mustard seeds as they can fly out of the pan and get you when you least expect them to. Un-popped mustard seeds can be quite bitter and will take away from the taste of the dish  so keep your oil/butter hot before you add these little seeds.

3. Cumin seeds:

Cumin seeds
Cumin seeds

They are small, brown, spindle-like seeds with a strong but pleasant smell. They can be used in their whole form or as a ground spice though the former is definitely my choice. Cumin seeds are a rich source of vitamins and minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc.

They are known as “jeerige” in Kannada and “jeera” in Hindi.

To temper cumin seeds, one adds them to hot oil and waits for them to turn slightly browner and release their aromas. Don’t let them burn and don’t mistake them for the sweeter smelling caraway seed.

 

4. Fenugreek seeds:

Fenugreek seeds
Fenugreek seeds

I have described fenugreek seeds in great detail in one of my previous posts along with their uses. In addition to making spice mixes, fenugreek seeds are used sparingly as a tempering ingredient for some dishes such as sambhar. The sparing usage is because they are also on the bitter side much like mustard.

They are known as “Menthya” in Kannada and “Methi” in Hindi.

To temper fenugreek seeds, one adds them to hot oil and waits for them to turn slightly brown. Don’t let them burn as it will augment their bitterness.

5. Urad and channa dal mix:

Black beluga lentils and Split chick peas (Urid and Chana dal)
Black beluga lentils and Split chick peas (Urid and Chana dal)

I have described lentils or dals in a previous blog. Urad dal (Hindi) or Uddina bele (Kannada) refers to black beluga lentils that have been de-skinned and split. They are small, whitish in colour and are oblong in shape. Chana dal (Hindi) or Kadale bele (Kannada) are split chick peas. They are round, dark yellow and plump seeds.

While these to types of lentils are cooked in various way, they are used in tempering to add crunch to an otherwise soft and pulpy sauce/curry. My mum said that it was her aunty’s trick to mix them both in a jar rather than add each one separately. I thought it was a good trick and have since adopted it.

To temper fenugreek seeds, one adds them to hot oil and waits for them to turn slightly brown. Don’t let them burn.

 

Conclusion:

This post isn’t finished yet. A description of the remaining ingredients in a standard tempering/seasoning experiment of South Indian origin are described in Tempering/Seasoning de-constructed – Part II.

 

Pronunciations:

aavalu = aaah + vah + loo

Andhra Pradesh = aaahn+dra as in Tundra + Pra as in praline + they + sh

jeera = jee + rah

jeerige = jeer + e + gay

rai = wry

saag = saa as in sarcastic + g

sarson = sur as in surname + so + a half ‘n’ sound like in the French word Garçon

sasive = saa as in sarcastic + s + ve as in vein

tel = te as in they+ ll (it almost sounds like tail but with a “th” sound on the t)

vogranne = vog as in vogue+run+neigh

vagaar = ver as in over + gaar as in guardian

yenne = ye as in yay + neigh

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