Every region has a standard spice combination to temper food but often it's taken for granted.

Chhaunk, chhamka, tadka, bagar, phoron, phodani, popu, kaduggu pottikega... by any name would smell as sweet. A cooking technique in which whole spices and other condiments are fried briefly in hot oil or ghee, just until essential oils are liberated from cells and their flavour released and enhanced, before being poured, along with the oil, into a dish.

The origin of the word chhaunk or chhamka is probably onomatopoeic, from the sounds of spluttering and sizzling that come when the deed is done. We all do it; in every part of the sub-continent; wherever oil or fats are used in cooking.

There are combinations that have become so routine that they're taken completely for granted. I once asked a friend from Lucknow how she cooked parwal. She said, “Oh nothing, just straight.” I asked again what spice she used. “Oh, none.” I persisted, trying to extract an answer with a more explicit question: how do you start, what do you add, and when. To which she said “Just hing-zeera”.

Definite flavours

I know she wasn't being proprietary about the recipe; she just assumed that hing-zeera didn't need to be mentioned, like salt. To me, hingand zeera are very definite flavours, used sometimes, by choice. If I were to use them in every dish, I'd stop noticing their smell, and then I too could say, “Oh nothing.”

Every region has some standard spice combinations, like the mustard seed, curry patta, red chilli version in most of the south (the very phrase for tempering in Malayalam, kaduggu pottikega, means the crackle or popping of mustard seeds that will be used to temper). To an outsider the new cuisine seems rich and varied; imagine someone brought up on hing-zeera suddenly tasting this new masala.

Years ago, when curry leaf trees were not so common in Delhi, an aunt, famous for her crisp kurkura alu, said she had been out for lunch and discovered the most amazing dish: potatoes tempered not with cumin or coriander but mustard seeds and curry leaves! But it wasn't just the novelty of curry leaves; our exposure was limited to what we'd been brought up with. Which is surprising, since spices aren't region bound: cloves pop up in curries in Kashmir and Kerala, and kalonji, nigella, in a Bengali cabbage ghantoas well as in mango pickle in Punjab. Yet everyone has more or less fixed ideas of what to put with what, and in which dal or curry.

Two kinds

It seems there are two kinds of tempering: that which is prepared and then added to boiled dal, chutney or vegetables; and that in which spices are sautéed and raw vegetables or meat stirred in and cooked till tender. There are finer variations, where the boiled dal is already spiced, usually with salt, turmeric and chillies; or more layered still, where the food is tempered twice, once before and once after cooking.

Most cooking has default settings; a basic minimum spice combination is repeated for all dals and with a slight variation for all vegetables. In most of the North, dalis chhaunko'd with hing, zeera and maybe a red or green chilli, sometimes ginger. Summer vegetables use lots of chopped onions. Very rarely is “garam masala” used, except in restaurant cooking.

But restaurant recipes represent no region, so they're free to spice up their fare however they wish. In addition to the usual suspects, Bengal has devised the refreshing combination of five flavours, paanch phoron: saunf, zeera, kalonji, methi dana (fennel, cumin, nigella, fenugreek), and the rarely found radhuni (ajmod, wild celery). Some recipes have mustard seeds instead of radhuni, far easier to buy.

In either case, the spices are usually fried in hot oil, though sometimes they are roasted and ground, to be stirred into a cooked dish.

Taboo

Some combinations are taboo: ginger, for instance, is seldom used with masoor dal, but almost always with moong. All over the country, hing is used in most dals, probably as an aid to digestion. It gets added to the usual combination of the region, so in the South it's part of the mustard-curry leaf-red chilli tempering, and in the North, to the cumin-red chilli formula.

And in Kashmir, unlike the rest of the country, it's added to several meat curries as well. Bengaldalsare often flavoured with bay leaves, but other “garam masala” additions are uncommon.

One recipe for arhar or tuvar— possibly from Maharashtra — that I came across has a delightful flavour. There is some gur in it, and the gentle sweetness is enhanced by a small stick of cinnamon and a couple of cloves. The fish curry is a traditional Bengali recipe; this version is adapted from Chitrita Banerji's Life and Food in Bengal.

Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham's ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).