A basic sauce to which you can add any meat, fish or vegetables
A correctly cooked Tarka is quite the most important piece of the perfect Punjabi dish. This cooking technique has existed for 100’s of years but you may not have heard of it as you’re probably more familiar with the term ‘curry base’. The Tarka is the groundwork to your work of art and you need to ensure that each ingredient is cooked correctly to enable it to work with the others in the pan. A badly cooked dish will show itself to you as soon as it is served. Onions floating at the top mean you didn’t cook the onion correctly and if the sauce or gravy is watery around the edges of the bowl – your didn’t cook the tomatoes long enough, and you will get a bitter flavour from over-cooking the garlic and ginger. Even the spices release their own aromatic oils when cooked correctly. Just throwing spoonful’s of spice into a dish will do absolutely nothing for it but create a powdery sauce.
This may all sound quite overwhelming – however, do not despair. I have put a little recipe together for you to create the perfect base for your dish. These are the staple ingredients for a basic Tarka. We will add or take away ingredients depending on the dish we are cooking in other recipes – however the basic principle is the same.
The base can be kept in the refrigerator for upto 4 days and frozen for upto 3 months. I cook a batch when I know the week or month ahead is going to be really busy.
The recipe below should easily feed a family of 4 – however, teach yourself to make the adjustments to each ingredient according to how many you are cooking for. In this one we are using just one tempering spice which is the cumin seeds. (see Spice Box for further information on all the spices we use in Punjabi cooking).
Use your senses when cooking – they will help you greatly as you will see below. Start with your ears and get your favourite music going while you make this!
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Ingredients – preparation time 15 mins, cooking time 20 mins
1 tablespoon of oil/ghee – in the Punjab a lot of dishes are cooked in Mustard oil, outside of India we can use a good vegetable or sunflower oil – I use Rapeseed oil as I like the subtle nutty flavour it adds to a dish
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 large onion – minced, diced, chopped or sliced – depending on the dish you are creating – see my page titled The Punjabee Kitchen
1 tablespoon of ginger paste (roughly 2 inch piece of ginger)
1 tablespoon of garlic paste (roughly 5 cloves of garlic)
2 – 4 finely chopped fresh green chillies
1 x 400g can of plum tomatoes (puréed)/or 1 heaped tablespoon of tomato puree/or 5 large diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon of garam masala
Salt to your taste
A small handful of freshly chopped coriander leaves to garnish your dish
- Heat the oil in a heavy based pan on a medium flame – the oil should not be cold if you want the benefits of the tempering spices – The hot oil or ghee makes the spices more fragrant and flavoursome and brings their essence to the fore
- Sprinkle in the the cumin seeds and give them a quick stir
- When the seeds start to dance or pop in the pan – add the diced onion
- Cook the onions on a medium heat until they are tinged with a slightly golden colour – onion must not be translucent. If you would like a darker sauce, say for the Tariwali Gosht recipe, cook them on a low heat for longer until they caramelize. The longer you cook them on a medium to low heat the better the flavour you will get from your sauce
- Lower the heat and add the garlic and ginger
- Once you get the aroma from the garlic it is cooked. If the mixture sticks to the pan, add a little water to help it along and stop it drying out.
- Add the turmeric powder. The mixture should now be sticking together.
- Slowly add the tomatoes and chillies
- Turn the heat back up to medium high and add the salt, stirring regularly. Keep an eye on the mixture and keep stirring at this point, don’t let it burn or stick to the pan
- Your mixture will be ready when you start to see little wells of oil sitting on the surface, it should have thickened and not have a watery edge, it should also be slightly darker in colour and this is the point you can add the garam masala
- You can add any meat, fish or vegetable to this Tadka. It’s the most basic one and you will see as you go through my recipes that you will be adding or taking ingredients away from the Tadka depending on the dish you are creating.
- Once your meat/fish/veg has cooked through, turn off the heat and sprinkle on the chopped coriander, stirring it in slowly.
Serve your dish with fresh chapatti, naan or rice