Tempering in oil is a traditional method of releasing flavour from whole spices, common in Indian cooking, whether to start a dish, or to finish it (as in a tadka). It’s easier than toasting and grinding, but it takes a little bit of nerve the first time or two, to heat the oil to sizzling, and cope with the spluttering an popping. The final product is worth it, though — throughly fragrant, intensely flavourful oil for cooking or serving.
Tempering can be done with oil–like a light vegetable oil, or coconut oil–or ghee. Use an oil like canola, grapeseed, or peanut, that can handle a high heat without breaking down. Not olive oil. Don’t use butter instead of ghee, which is clarified to remove the proteins that will burn.
– a few tbsp of light vegetable oil or ghee
(note that this is a bastard mix that exists nowhere in nature, combining northern and southern spices, and is intended soley for illustrative purposes, though it surely would taste good–Brad)
– 1 tbsp (15 ml) black mustard seeds
– 1 tsp (10 ml) fenugreek seeds
– 2 tsp (20 ml) cumin
– a few dried red chilies
– 10-50 fresh curry leaves
– 1/2 tsp asafoetida (hing)
Heat the oil in a heavy bottom pan over high heat until very hot (but before it starts to smoke badly. And don’t let it catch fire and incinerate your whole kitchen.) You can test doneness by dropping a mustard seed or cumin seed into the oil. It will be hot enough when the oil bubbles vigorously. The seed will probably pop. Reduce the heat to about medium.
Add the spices in the prescribed order (for the example spices above, this is the order in which they’re listed.) Add them quickly, one after another. As soon as one spice begins to sputter and pop, add the next (probably within seconds). Be careful, and use a splatter guard if you have one since there will be sprays of hot oil all over. This is especially true with fresh curry leaves.
Let the curry leaves temper until they start to turn a brilliant green, a few seconds longer than the dried spices. If you are using powdered spices, like hing, or garam masala, add these at the very end since they are most liable to burn. AT this point, either take the oil and spices off the heat and pour it into your coconut chutney or daal, or begin to add the wet ingredients, like ginger, garlic and, onion.