Tempering (or “tadka”) is fundamental in traditional Indian cooking. It helps to extract the full flavors from spices. What is tempering? It is using hot oil or ghee to extract the full flavors and fragrance from spices. The oils in spices is what makes them so special so using oil as vessel to add them to a dish helps to bring out the true flavors, medicinal value, and distribute the essence of the spices throughout the dish.
Ghee is the perfect vessel for tempering. To temper, you need an oil/fat with a high smoke point. Since many of the oils with high smoke points are also unhealthful and inflammatory oils (canola/corn/vegetable), I use ghee. Ghee also adds incredible umami and mouthfeel to a dish. It makes the meal very satisfying - even with just one tablespoon. A little bit goes a long way. As I’ve mentioned before, ghee is prominent in aryuevdic medicine. I provides more than just nutritional benefits- it warms the soul and clears the mind.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, food is more than its breakdown of basic constituents— proteins, carbs, and fats. Food has energy and can transfer that energy to you. In Eastern medicine, food is understanding is understood by its Qi- its impact on human behavior once it is taken into the body. For example, some foods increase our metabolism, some slow us down, some generate warmth or coolness in the body, some are drying, some of moistening, some specifically nourish the heart, kidney, lungs or other organs.
Aryuvedic medicine encourages intuative eating. We are all vastly different. We all have differing constitutions and differing energies. Our bodies behave differently by ingesting various foods and their Qis. This is why easter medicine encourages variation in medicine and diet from person to person.
Food is living. Or at least it should be. Nourishing food is living and thriving with energy. If you are eating a diet full of fake foods- such as packaged and processed foods, you are eating dead food and thus, not reaping the benefits of the energy foods have to offer.
In traditional Chinese medicine, all foods have temperature. This does not mean whether the food is physically hot or cold but the metabolic effect it has on our body. For example, cucumbers, star fruit, kiwi, watermelon, blueberries, coconut water, crab, and amaranth, are cooling to the body. Basil, cumin, papaya, garlic, cinnamon, venison and goats milk are warm. Furthermore, some foods like apricots, pineapple, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, fish, and honey are neutral. This is when it is beneficial to take an ayurvedic test to see what your basic constitution or dosha is. You can be one of three doshas- or more commonly, a mixture of two. The doshas are vata, pitta, and kapha. A warmer person (kappa) who is prone to sluggish digestion, depression, sinus congestion, and heaviness, will benefit from cooling foods/spices. A cooler individual (vata), prone to anxiety, dryness, and constipation, will benefit from more warming spices and meals.
This can also be implied when you are sick. If your illness is characterized by congestion, perspiration, headaches, inflammation, and high temperatures, it will behoove you too consume foods that have theopposite characteristics (aka Yin foods). Again, this would be foods such as apples, bananas, persimmons, strawberries, cucumbers, millet, eggs, green tea, or peppermint tea. On the other hand, if your sickness is characterized by chills, aches, and shivering, warming foods or yang foods will be beneficial. These would include coconut milk, peaches, pumpkin, squash, walnuts, chicken, butter, basil, and warming spices such as ginger tea, or garlic.
There are six basic flavors in Ayurveda: sweet, salting, pungent, sour, astringent, and bitter. Each of these travel different channels and can benefit a particular organ with certain actions. The taste of foods- developing flavors and appreciating them is incredibly fundamental in Ayurveda tradition. We are familiar with flavor and taste in the eastern diet but it holds a much deeper significance in the western understanding of food. Taste reflects the energy of food. Their inherit energy can be affected by how it is cooked, processed, stored, when or where it was harvested, where/how it was grown or raised, and how fresh it is. Thus, taste can tell us a great deal about the energy of that particular food. Taste is how we can physically experience the food’s energy. Each flavor has unique characteristics of its own. Keep in mind, these are characters of WHOLE, REAL, unprocessed foods.
Sweet foods (basil, dates, cashews): cooling, moistening, dampening, laxative, grounding.
Pungent foods (onion, ginger, chilies): motility, discourage stagnation, carminative (relives flatulence)
Salty foods (celery, salt, seaweed): softening and detoxifying
Sour foods (tomato, lemon, cheese): encourage absorption and contraction
Bitter foods (turmeric, dandelion, coffee): Drain moisture and counteract dampness, cholagogue (promotes healthy flow of bile)
Astringent (pomegranate, chickpeas, parsley): reduces sweating, cools excess heat, anti-inflammatory, tones tissue
Balancing energies in a meal can be important and may be something you already inherently do. May traditional recipes/flavor combinations are founded in this principle. Such as mint (cooling) and lamb (warming), grapefruit (cooling) and ginger (warming), chicken (warming) and lemon (cooling).
You also mostly likely inherently do this when the seasons change. When the temperatures drop in the winter, we crave and rightfully require more warming foods, and vice versa. Mind you- not just warm or cool in their temperatures, but in their energy and metabolic effect on the body.
Ayurveda and tradition Chinese medicine is incredible fascinating and brings a breathe of fresh air to our often shallow easter view of life. Being a traditionally trained dietitian, finding this way of thought and approach to life a few years ago was very life changing for me. To be honest, it was relieving. Thank goodness our health and energy does not boil down to calculations and formulations. How mundane is that? Instead, intuitive eating is so much more fluid and ever changing. That is where all the fun is.
Next week I am going to talk about some of the basic practices you can implement to being eating orientally. I can’t wait!
You can temper whole or powdered spices.
Traditionally, depending on what you are making, you either temper at the beginning or end of the dish. Today I tempered at the end of my dish.
Heat 1-2 tbsp ghee in a small sauce pan until it is shimmering. Reduce heat to medium. Add the seeds or powered spices. They will darken and become aromatic. This should only take a few seconds. You will know they are down then they are crackling or change in color. (Careful not to burn them) Immediately put this flavored ghee into your dish and stir.
Note: The key to tempering is heat control. If you burn them… don’t worry. It happened to the best of us. You will have to thrown them out and start over. If you are adding whole spices, you will add the bigger ones with the longer cook times first (such as cloves), followed by smaller spices (such as cumin).
For the soup pictured, I sweated 1 onion and 4 cloves of garlic in a tbsp of ghee. Next, I added a few cups of bone broth (you can use regular broth), a few cups of chopped butternut squash, and a few cups of chopped broccoli. If everything is not submerged, add more liquid. Simmer for a few minutes until slightly tender. At this time, do your tempering. I used a few tsp of a Jamaican curry powder blend. But any curry blend or Chinese five spice would also be amazing. Turn off the heat and allow the dish to cook the reminder of the way. It is important to keep the lid on to prevent the volatile oils of the precious spices from escaping. Season with salt and pepper. ENJOY!