A few weeks back, I read Mahesh Dattani’s Last Word in the Week titled ‘Home-cooked Love’. In his wonderful article he writes: ‘Being brought up in a middle class home, the first sign of comfort is when you hear the hiss and crackle of the tadka and you know that the daal will be taken off the stove in a minute…’ How true… ‘tadka’ is the quintessential finishing touch to many an Indian dish, cooked the traditional way! This process that is unique to Indian cuisine called ‘Seasoning’…. ‘Thadka’ or ‘Thalichchu kottaradu’ takes multidimensional avatars in the sub continent. I suppose the traditional ‘Tadka’ has a unity in all its diversity… Basically, the dry dishes get their dose of ‘tadka’ at the very beginning of the cooking session whereas, the gravies like the daals, sambhars , kadis and rasams get it as a finishing touch. Of course as usual there are exceptions to the rule…like the traditional ‘Vathakozhambu’ and ‘gottu rasam’ and ‘Jeera or milagu rasam’ (what is served in Five Star restaurants with an exotic name like ‘Mulgatawny soup’) for which the procedure starts with the tadka or seasoning. In fact, even the North Indian kadis ( Punjabi, Sindhi) I believe, start with the seasoning. All dry veggie preparations begin with the tadka. Only, depending on the region, the combination of spices vary. Up North, invariably, it is ‘jeere ka tadka’ after which you saute onion, ginger , garlic etc. The south Indian varieties of ‘thoran’ ‘poduthuwal’ or ‘palya’ is seasoned initially with mustard seeds, red chillies, urad daal, kadi patha and hing (asofoteda-perungaayam…or kaayam). There is a malayalee version of adding scraped fresh coconut with the seasoning, but generally, coconut is added at the end. Sambhar gets mustard seeds and so does ‘Rasam’ in many kitchens… but I love seasoning my rasams in pure ghee, of mustard seeds ( kadugu…sarson… saasuve…) and jeera (cumin). There is another tradition to this art of pouring spluttered tadka to rasams. The apparatus for seasoning is called ‘thaalichchukottra karandi’ or just ‘karandi’. It is noramally an iron ladle with a long handle, or a wooden one, so that heat is not conducted too fast making you drop hot oil on your feet… The ladle is heated on the flame, just a teaspoon of oil poured into it, taking care not to spill out and before it overheats, the kadugu and jeera are dropped into the oil… As it reaches a particular crescendo of spluttering , the ladle is removed from the flame and emptied into the rasam… Then, the hot ladle is swirled in the rasam where it protests its misuse with a smokey hiss… Hmmm! I can smell that heavenly aroma even as I write this. Now I don’t know if this ‘swirling’ business is carried out in all homes. How did I start it? It all started with a visit to a Hari katha session of T. S. Balakrishna Shastrigal when I was 15 or 16, in Trichur. We kids were expected to sit right in the front row…maybe with the intention of controlling our playful antics or restlessness. I used to enjoy such sessions. The humourous doyen was explaining some aspect of Bhakthi when he said: “ How do the ladies finish making rasam? After, they do the ‘Thaalikkal’ they dip the ‘karandi’ in the rasam…That ‘Soyiiiee…’ sound should come…only then the rasam gets the traditional taste.” I definitely don’t remember in what religious context he had said that, but those words stuck to my brain… and I have been following it all these days… The tadka slightly varies for different Tam-Bram preparations. For ‘MoLagoottal’ or ‘Porichcha kuzhambu’ my mom taught me to season with kadugu, urad daal and red chillies. For ‘Pitlai’ we have to dry roast scraped coconut till it turns golden brown and add it as finishing touch, for Mor Kuzhambu the seasoning is of Sarson, methi seeds and red chillies… Some dishes are unique in their lack of tadka. Avial, Olan etc just get a smattering of raw coconut oil to enhance the flavour of the vegetables used. The use of Hing or asofoteda is also rather special. Many dishes get seasoned with a dash of powered Hing along with the other things used for tempering. My favourite tempering is of the instant mango pickle Mom has taught me. It is quite a hit wherever I go. All we do is cut raw mango into small…very small… pieces. Add salt, chillie powder, haldi and season with Sarson, methi and hing! It tastes like manna! Tempering and garnishing go side by side But garnishing, I feel panders to the olfactory sense where as tempering or seasoning tantalizes the tastebuds. What will be the fate of the commoner called Upma or ‘Uppumaa’ as it is locally called, without seasoning? It will be exactly what its name suggests- Uppu (salt) and Maavu ( dough)! It is the sheer seasoning that makes it a ‘breakfastable’ item! Also, the Kannada dish called Kosambari will be just a bland combination of soaked daals and cucumber but for the tempering. The ‘thayir pachadi’ or the local south Indian ‘raita’ is a bland blend of vegetables and curd… till it is tempered with sarson and red chillies. Then it gets an exquisite flavour. Once in <?XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = ST1 /><ST1:COUNTRY-REGION><ST1LACE>Iraq</ST1LACE></ST1:COUNTRY-REGION>, I saw a cook give a special seasoning to his daal. He heated ghee (clarified butter) and added jeera powder and red chillie powder into it and seasoned the daal with that. That daal tasted yummy! The oil used for tadka also varies… Coconut oil is used in many homes in Kerala, whereas, peanut or sunflower oil is more common in most south Indian kitchens… In Bokaro and <ST1:CITY><ST1LACE>Durgapur</ST1LACE></ST1:CITY>, I used to get the unique smell of Sarson ka thel (mustard oil) being used for tempering. The smell of hot ghee advertises a special occasion! Whatever the oil used, to the hungry, it is the most welcome smell in the world…one that opens the floodgates of saliva in one’s mouth… There is another variety of ‘tadka’ … the one people add to their stories… to enhance the flavour of their tale… of course, what they dish out with such tadka must be taken with a pinch of salt! All said and done, the tadka business is all about giving a dish its attitude!