The perfect base for every Indian curry ever

Priya Raj 8 June 2022

Tastes just like the professionals do it. Whip up a flawless curry every time with this delicious tadka recipe, whether you're cooking with meat or veggies

Something I have learned, as a 20-ish British Indian millennial who prefers to be cooked for rather than cook, is that every North Indian dish starts somewhat the same way.

In North India you will find the state of Punjab, where universally popular dishes like Butter Chicken, Palak Paneer and Tandoori Chicken hail from. 

Tadka, which translates to “tempering”, is made when spices and aromatics (ginger, garlic etc) are heated in oil or ghee (clarified butter). It is also the opening sequence of nearly every curry.

"Tadka is the opening sequence of nearly every curry"

Don’t be under any illusion that this will taste like the 12-hour slow-cooked daal from your favourite local Indian jaunt, but it will do for those of us who have subpar cooking skills.

This recipe makes roughly enough tadka for 500g of any vegetable or 300g of chicken.

This is my favourite way to use up leftover bits of veg before doing the weekly shop, but otherwise, good ones to use are carrots, cauliflower or cabbage.

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp neutral oil (or ghee)
  • 2 medium onions
  • 2 green bird's eye chillies
  • 3 cloves of garlic (or 1 tbsp garlic paste)
  • 1-inch piece of ginger (or 1 tsp ginger paste)
  • 227g tin of chopped tomatoes (or 3 very ripe tomatoes)
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tbsp cumin powder
  • 1 tsp Kashmiri red chilli powder
  • 1 tbsp garam masala powder—learn to make it yourself here
  • Salt to taste
  • Coriander to garnish

Bowl of butter chicken and naan bread sitting next to a spoon and halved limesButter Chicken is one famous Punjabi dish that can be made with tadka

Method:

1. Start by oiling a pan. You can use any sort of flavourless oil—we opt for olive oil in my household.

Note: You can also add a knob of butter to give some richness and that proper restaurant taste.

2. Dice the onions and finely chop the ginger, garlic and chillies. If you have a food processor then put it to good use here, or you can practise your chopping skills. Don’t worry about anything being super uniform, as it will cook down and soften.

This amount of chilli will give a mild heat so if you think you can handle more, then add at this stage. Otherwise, we can amp up the spice with extra chilli powder later.

If you’re not using fresh ginger & garlic, you can opt for one tablespoon of each in paste form.

Add this all to your oil/ghee on medium heat.

Note: If you like a smooth “gravy” (as we call it), boil your onions first and then drain and use a hand blender/food processor to create an onion paste. Then add this to the oil along with everything else as normal.

3. Add a level teaspoon of salt—this will soften the onions a bit faster. Don’t be tempted to add any more salt at this point. The golden rule is you can always add more but you can’t take it out once it's in.

4. Once the onions start becoming a little translucent, add turmeric powder, cumin powder, and the Kashmiri red chilli powder. We’ll also use half a tin of chopped tomatoes, or about three chopped ripe tomatoes.

You’re looking for all this to cook down and look paste-like, which will take about 10-15 minutes. Stir intermittently to make sure the bottom doesn’t burn.

5. Your tadka is ready! You’ll now add any meat or veggies you wish to the mixture. Heat until the veg is cooked through and tender or, if you’re cooking chicken, until it's nearly done.

One-inch pieces of chicken take about 20 minutes, but at 15 minutes add some water to make extra “gravy”, which is nice if you’re planning to serve over rice.

6. Finish with coriander and the garam masala. Cook your curry for another couple of minutes, and then you’re done.

Note: If you tend to leave out the coriander from dishes because it goes bad before you’re able to use it, here's a great tip. When you bring it home from the supermarket, wash and let the water drain out in a colander, then chop it, stick it in a freezer bag and whack it in the freezer—it tastes exactly the same as fresh. 

A bowl of vegetable dahl with cauliflower, cabbage and carrotsTadka is the perfect recipe for using up leftover vegetables like cauliflower, carrots or cabbage

This mixture can also be made in a big batch and frozen to be used as a homemade base, to which you can add any meat and veggies. Voila: curry in a jiffy.

Just multiply the above recipe, let it cool down before putting it into your freezer containers, and remove it from the freezer the morning of or night before you want to use it.

Read more: 8 Mistakes you probably make when cooking curry

Read more: 5 Surprising facts about India

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