Tempered Potatoes

TEMPERED (cooked, mixed with seasoned onions): I used to be really confused when my mom referred to ‘tempered potatoes’ or other tempered dishes. In Western cooking, ‘tempering’ means to slowly bring up the temperature of a cold or room temperature ingredient, by adding small amounts of a hot or boiling liquid. Adding the hot liquid gradually prevents the cool ingredient from cooking or setting. In Western cooking, tempering typically refers to either chocolate or eggs.

In South Asian cuisine, tempering is a widely used cooking method; you heat spices in hot oil, and then add them to your dish at the end of cooking. The hot oil extracts the flavors of the spices and intensifies their effect. South Asian tempering is done either at the beginning of the cooking process or as a final flavoring at the end—or sometimes both! The ingredients are usually added in rapid succession, rarely together, with those requiring longer cooking added earlier and those requiring less cooking added later. For instance, you’d add black mustard seeds to the hot oil first and then later add chopped garlic, which could burn if added earlier.

You can use this method with a wide variety of spices, for a wide variety of vegetables; you can simply mix tempered onions with boiled potatoes, or add them to a simmered lentil curry. Tempering highlights flavors that have already cooked into the dish, adding a bright, fresh seasoning note.


Tempered Potatoes

(20 minutes, serves 4)

Simple, classic – my kids like this preparation.

3 russet potatoes, peeled
1 onion, sliced
3-4 cloves garlic , sliced
3 Tbsp. lime juice
1-2 tsp. dried red chili pieces
½ tsp. cayenne
¼ tsp. ground turmeric
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 ½ tsp. black mustard seed
1 2-inch cinnamon stick
1 dozen curry leaves
1 – 1 1/2 tsp. salt

1. Boil potatoes, drain, and cut into large chunks or small dice, as you prefer.

2. In a medium bowl, mix these ingredients: onion, garlic, lime juice, chili pieces, cayenne, turmeric, and salt.

3. Heat oil in a saucepan on medium-high heat; when oil is ready add mustard seeds and let it pop up (nearly 2-4 seconds). Then add cinnamon and curry leaves and let it fry for 1-2 minutes. Then add the onion mixture and stir to mix.

4. Turn heat to medium, and fry, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent-golden, about 10 minutes; be careful not to burn them. The mixture should be very aromatic by this stage.

5. Add potatoes into the onion mixture, mixing well, but don’t break the potatoes into small pieces. Stir for a minute or two until well blended; taste and add salt and/or lime juice as desired. Serve with rice or bread.

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