Drizzling oil over a dish as a final flourish is an easy way to add richness and flavor. In India, cooks take it a step further, first infusing the oil with spices and aromatics. And rather than strain the mixture, they pour it — seeds and all — onto cooked greens, raw vegetables, and starchy legumes, adding both taste and texture.
We found these seasoned oils, called tarka, easy to make and even easier to use. The method was simple: Heat oil, add seasonings, steep briefly, then drizzle. It brought out the character of almost any spice (whole or ground), herb or aromatic, and was just as delicious over mashed potatoes or popcorn as on dal or steamed vegetables.
In India, tarka is often made with ghee (clarified butter). At Milk Street, we developed three variations using more common fats: salted butter, refined coconut oil, and neutral oil. The butter provided a sweet flavor and nutty aroma, but did require slightly more monitoring to ensure that the milk solids didn't burn. The coconut oil heated beautifully and gave the tarka a creamy mouthfeel. And neutral oils allowed individual spice flavors to come through cleanly.
Though making tarka is straightforward, we learned a few tips that made it even easier. Using a small saucepan with high sides helped prevent splatter. Swirling, rather than stirring, was a better way to incorporate the seasonings and keep the tarka from popping.
Finally, a note on order: Tradition calls for adding the spices to hot fat, but we found it more foolproof to add whole spices — peppercorns or coriander, cumin or sesame seeds — to cold oil and heat them together. The extra time in the oil or butter reliably coaxes the flavor out of the tough spices.
Once the whole spices sizzle and begin to darken at the edges, it's time to add any ground spices (such as cinnamon, chili powder, and paprika). Once these are fragrant and beginning to brown — it takes just a few seconds — add any fresh ingredients, such as ginger, chilies, and fresh herbs. Remove the tarka from the heat, swirling the pan to cool it.
Any of these recipes can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to five days. Before serving, reheat over medium-high until the spices begin to sizzle and become fragrant, then use immediately.
For the recipe and more, head to Christopher Kimball's Milk Street.