I used to live in an apartment complex filled with Indian families. These families were always outside with their children, walking in groups and talking together. The entire culture that they brought to the area in which I lived was fantastic, and I took every chance I got to get to know more.
The only bad thing about living among Indian people was the food envy I experienced. Every day, I would come home from work to the most amazing aroma of food cooking in the apartments above mine. I wished more than anything to be invited to dinner by someone—anyone, but sadly it never happened, and the smell tortured me so much that I felt it was necessary to learn to cook the dishes I craved.
After researching vindaloo, tika masala, and other recipes involving curry, I determined that cooking Indian food can be a rather grueling process. It involves quite a few ingredients, many of which I had never heard of before, and it can take hours to prepare. Seeing as I was short on time and not a very good cook to begin with, I soon lost heart. But my hunger for Indian cuisine could not be quieted.
The decision to go ahead and just try my hand at cooking Indian food came after my third or fourth trip to a wonderful but rather pricey restaurant. I figured that whatever I cooked wouldn’t be as good as the authentic stuff, but maybe it would give me a fix and save me a few bucks. To my utter surprise and complete delight, the mission was a success.
By pulling bits and pieces of recipes from across the Internet, and adding some short-cuts of my own, I am now able to prepare Indian-inspired meals whenever my curry-loving heart desires. In doing so, I’ve found that there really aren’t any rules; I always feel free to mix and match meats and veggies because those are the variables, while the spices are the constant. Get your spices right and the rest will follow.
That being said, let’s talk Tadka.
Tadka is a tomato-based sauce loaded with spices. You begin it by heating up some oil and cooking the heck out of a chopped onion. In my opinion, this is the most involved part of the whole process because you have to watch the onions to make sure they don’t burn on the bottom of the pan. Once the onions have cooked down into a goopy, delicious mush (almost like a rue), then you can add almost everything else and take a break.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are the ingredients you’re going to need to get started:
- 3 tbsp. of oil
- ½ cup of milk or coconut milk
- 1 large potato
- 1 medium to large onion
- 2-3 garlic cloves
- 1 pepper (I used a jalepeno, but you could do a bell pepper or something more intense.)
- Other veggies (I used carrots, which are not traditional. Peas and/or chickpeas work best.)
- 24 oz of tomato sauce (I used 1 ½ 16 oz cans)
- 3-4 tbsp. of curry powder that contains: turmeric, coriander, cumin, foenugreek, star anise and cloves (It’s fine if there are other as well.)
- 2 chicken breasts
- Salt to taste
Okay. Before we go any farther, I have to tell you that quite a bit of oil will be used in the making of this dish. You can use whatever kind of oil you want, but just know that we’re not skimping on the grease here.
Now that that’s out of the way, go ahead and heat your oven to 400 degrees, then peel your potato and cube it. When that’s done, drizzle a cookie sheet with some oil (or use spray) and load it up with your potato pieces. Sprinkle with some salt and pepper and then throw that sucker in the oven for 20 minutes.
While your potato cubes are baking, chop your onion as finely as you can. I think it’s best to make them small so that they cook faster. When they’re as teeny tiny as your chopping skills will allow, go ahead and heat a skillet and add about 2-3 tablespoons of oil. Make sure the skillet is fairly deep, as you will be adding all of your ingredients to it eventually.
You don’t have to wait until the skillet is hot to throw your onions in. Go ahead and get those little guys coated in oil, then cover the top of your skillet and wait. Keep an eye on them as they cook, and feel free to add more oil or even some water if the onions get too dry. You’re looking for the crisp white pieces to turn into a dark brown goop. Sounds amazing, right?
In the meantime, chop your garlic, peppers and other veggies. Again, small pieces cook faster.
At this point, check on your potatoes. If the timer has gone off, then give the cookie sheet a good scrape and turn over as many as you can without spending too much time or energy—it’s not a big deal if they don’t all get turned. Put the cookie sheet back in the oven for another 10-20 minutes, or just until the potatoes are soft of the inside.
Return to your onions.
Once you’ve cooked your onions down to the desired consistency, add in the tomato sauce and everything else that you’ve chopped. Give it a stir, then cover it and let it sit until it’s good and hot. I always look for a thin layer of liquid to form above all the mushiness of the cooking veggies. It’s not very scientific, but that’s how I judge.
Side note: It’s definitely possible to use fresh tomatoes. I’ve done this before, and you can too. But, just know that it will take your whole life. I’ve switched over to the dark side of canned sauce and foregone the freshness of raw tomatoes because I just don’t have the patience to wait. However, if you want to give it a go, then just add your skinned and chopped tomatoes (2-3 depending on size), turn on Netflix, and start a Gilmore Girls marathon. Once that’s over, you’ll be ready to add the other veggies. If you go this route, you might want to make sure you have a food processor on hand so you can get rid of any remaining tomato chunks.
When your mixture is good and hot, add ½ a cup of milk or coconut milk (feel free to add more or less or none at all). Stir that in a bit, and then add your curry powder. Make sure everything is mixed well, then cover the mixture once more and get to work cutting your meat (if you’re choosing to use meat) into cubes. I generally use chicken, but lamb would be just as good—maybe even better.
After your meat is in neat, little cubes, check your skillet mixture. If it’s thick and soft, almost like chunky gravy, then it’s ready for the final step.
Toss in your chicken, making sure each piece is well coated. If your potatoes are finished cooking in the oven, then go ahead and add them in with the chicken. Otherwise, it’s fine to wait and just throw them in later. At this point, turn your burner to low and cover the skillet. Set your timer for 30 minutes, and wait for the heavenly aroma to become increasingly pungent.
While your chicken is cooking in the Tadka sauce, you might want to go ahead and get your rice cooking, as it will take approximately 20 minutes.
Anything is permissible when it comes to rice. However, I will say that Basmati takes this dish to another level. It’s the more traditional choice, so it really adds authenticity to the meal. Of course, it can be a bit pricey, and I’ve certainly opted for regular white rice before, so I leave it up to you. Just follow the directions on whatever bag or box of rice that you’re using, and by the time the rice is cooked, your Tadka should be ready as well.
Take that lid off and breathe deep the exotic smells seeping out. It’s great, isn’t it?
If you think any salt is needed, now would be the time to add it. When that's done, go ahead and grab yourself a bowl, load it up, and go to town.