People cook in ways they know and trust. A recipe once learned may be modified or adapted to create another method of cooking. Sometimes the techniques transferred are vestigial. While working fine in their original context, they may not be optimal in another context.

One such place where this kind of non optimal transfer may be occurring are in dishes like curried lamb and lentil stew. I’ve made this, and when I did, I initially followed the directions exactly. One of the things this recipe wanted the cook to do was stir the curry spices in with the lamb and toast them for a minute or two. After doing this, the lamb was transferred into water and cooked for some 45 minutes more.

This approach, toasting the spices, makes a great deal of sense if you’re starting with cumin and mustard seeds and wanting to add the toasty flavor to the food. In other words, it’s a cooking technique, or pattern, derived from the cooking of curries. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in a watery stew where the long period of simmering will deprive the spices of their low molecular weight aromatics over time. In a stew or soup, you want to put the most flavorful spices in last.

I had seen this done a number of times in Indian cooking, where their love of dals is an influence on the various lentil recipes I’ve posted over time. I used this “last in” approach on a urid dal soup I made, but I never had a name for the technique. I just picked it up by reading recipes.

But Mark Bittman has just published an article in the New York Times and it puts a name to this technique. Mark calls it a tarka, and Mark talks about the use of a tarka (along with some advice on cooking with lentils). I haven’t looked closely at the recipes, but I’ll note that Mark’s advice runs contrary to the normal practice of Indian cooks with the tougher dals. Indian cooks soak them. For whole urid dals, I’d recommend an overnight soak and a good three hours cooking. The additional time changes the texture of these tough lentils, becoming less a soup and more a “dal”.

Garlic, chiles, and baby bok choy were cooked in olive oil and added at the last minute to this lamb and lentil stew.

I’ve done this “last minute cooking” with ‘oils’ other than clarified butter (ghee). I find that olive oil works well enough. In this stage, things like spinach or baby bok choy can also be prepped and added to these soups. Techniques like these not only work well in Indian influenced cooking, but you see related last minute additions in things like this Irish beef stew recipe as well. The tarka “pattern” is not only for Indian cooks, but for anyone wanting fresh leaf vegetables and fresh spice flavors in their soups and stews.