Building Blocks of Indian Cooking Part II - Techniques
My first introduction to cooking was in my homeland, India. When I moved to America, I discovered a whole another world of multiple cuisines. Now that i cook everything, I want to talk of some key steps and techniques that are integral to Indian cooking. Almost all of Indian cooking takes place on the stovetop on an open flame. Ovens (except the Tandoor, an outdoor oven, not really a household thing, but used by restaurants, road side eateries and caterers) are not a part of traditional Indian kitchens. So baking, roasting, broiling are not required. Of course, many Indian recipes adapt pretty well to those techniques as well.
Tempering - known by various Indian names of ‘phoron’, ‘phorni’ or ‘tadka’ - is very often the first step to any recipe in Indian cooking. It’s the first layer of flavoring ingredients. The steps involves heating a few tablespoons of oil, and adding different whole spices, ginger, garlic or curry leaves, before proceeding to add the main cooking ingredient. This step is often the only step to introduce flavors, for example in a simple lentil (dal) recipe. Cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, onion seeds, fennel seeds, dried red chillies and curry leaves are the most common tempering spices. This set will also vary from region to region in India.
Layering of Spices
After the first step of tempering, it is usually followed by a second layer of adding powdered spices or pastes. If onion, ginger or garlic are called for in the recipe, usually that is added before the second layer of spices go in. At this step, you want to fry the powdered spices in the fat so they impart their full flavor and as well form the base of the "sauce" or "gravy".
Unlike Western cooking, making a sauce is not a recipe by itself. Every dish creates it's own sauce through the process of layering spices and the vegetables or proteins own juice. If the intention is to have a very saucy dish - what is a curry, and there can be an infinite types of curry, it's not the name of a particular dish - you usually add water. Sometimes yogurt, tomato puree, nut paste or coconut milk will also form the base of a sauce.