Tarka is a South Asian flavoring technique that adds bold flavor and texture to basic dishes in just minutes. It’s made by adding whole and ground spices, herbs and aromatics (fresh and dried) to hot fat—typically ghee—and briefly cooking and swirling them together, infusing the fat with deep flavor. Rather than straining the mixture, cooks use it straight, lending dishes complexity and sometimes a bit of crunch.
While tarka is traditional with dals, sambars and stir-fries, we discovered it’s also a perfect match for popcorn. Though we love the smooth, intensely buttery flavor of ghee, it can be pricey and hard to find. So we developed recipes for two butter-based tarkas (ghee and coconut oil work equally well). We also minimized whole spices or herbs, which tended to sift to the bottom of a bowl. Instead, we stuck with ground spices, salt and a bit of sugar for balance.
For our first tarka, we used a blend of ground cumin, fennel, curry powder, cayenne and a bit of white sugar to season the butter. For a sweeter take with a flavor reminiscent of caramel corn, we switched to light brown sugar and flavored the butter with cardamom, cinnamon and a bit of cayenne.