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Mustard Oil and the Art of Tempering

In the Indian culinary arts, the technique of Tempering (known in India as Tadka) embellishes the flavour of the dish by accentuating the taste of the various spices used in the recipes. The technique involves heating oil to its smoking point and then adding the spices one by one, in succession. This draws the flavours and the fragrance out and highlights the individual taste and texture of each spice.

Typically, the oil that is used for tempering must have a high smoking point so that it doesn’t degrade over prolonged periods of heating, thereby ruining the taste of the spices or worse still, adding a rancid aftertaste. That is why a cooking medium like olive oil cannot be used for tempering – it has a low smoking point of 160o to 190o C, according to the Journal of the Australasian College of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine (ACNEM). On the other hand, cold-pressed Mustard Oil with a smoking point of 250o C is ideal for tempering. Another cooking medium used in traditional Indian tempering is Ghee (clarified butter) which too has a smoking point of 250o C.

Tempering in Mustard Oil not only draws out the flavours and aromas of the spices, it also retains these attributes and accentuates them with the warm, sharp flavour of Mustard Oil. Depending on the recipe, the tempering process happens either at the beginning or at the end of the cooking process. For instance, while making Cumin Rice, the cumin (Jeera) is tempered at the beginning so that its distinctive taste can infuse the rice. However, in most Kashmiri Waazwaan dishes, the Tadka is added right at the end.

An important part of the art of tempering is to know the correct order in which the spices are to be added to the hot oil. Seeds like mustard seeds and cumin seeds are added first and only when they start spluttering does the tempering process proceed to the next stage. Spices like chopped garlic cloves are added last to avoid burning them in the course of prolonged tempering.

This art of tempering spices with Mustard Oil has been perfected across centuries of India’s culinary heritage, and even today, certain traditional dishes will just not come out right if the spices have not been tempered properly.

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