Way back in April, my sister was laughed out of her local vegetable market for being unable to identify a single vegetable. The lockdown in Bombay had severely curtailed her habit of eating out, and like so many others, she'd resigned herself to learning how to cook. But she had no idea where to begin — how did one pick a ripe tomato? What were the little black seeds in her spice cabinet?
To try and help, I put together a spice cheat sheet with pictures and basic instructions. Fast forward six months, a dozen spreadsheets, and many sleepless nights — and that janky spice sheet is now Tadka Tarot. Welcome! We see delicious things in your future.
What is Tadka Tarot?
Tadka Tarot is a deck of illustrated cards that helps people learn to cook more intuitively, through the lens of Indian food. Each deck includes 28 spice cards, 25 vegetable cards, and a couple of bonus cards such as a formula for Indian food, blending your own masalas, and more. Each ingredient card will help you understand the ingredient's flavor profile, other ingredients it pairs well with, and how to use it. Also included are a number of regional Indian recipes that showcase the ingredient in question.
Tadka Tarot will help guide you away from using recipes as crutches and build your culinary intuition (known in India as andaaz), so you can always walk into a kitchen and whip up a delicious meal, no matter what ingredients you have on hand.
What is andaaz?
Andaaz is an Urdu word that loosely translates to 'instinct', 'estimation', 'style'.
The certainty of a written recipe can be comforting in the beginning, but be cautious of getting trapped in its perils and inaccuracies. Besides, what the andaaz approach lacks in tangibility, it more than makes up for in its sense of discovery and adventure.
Although standardized recipes are imperative in restaurant kitchens for consistency, cooks are also trained to use their judgments to a certain extent, using constantly honed recipes as references. Once the dishes are complete, it is tasted and checked by the chef, and feedback is given on what could’ve been done differently, if any. In this way, the cook is able to learn and apply that knowledge the next time around, thereby improving his or her culinary aptitude and expertise.
The big story
In many ways, Tadka Tarot is an attempt to set the "Indian food" story straight — specifically the fact that there's no all-encompassing thing as "Indian food". Ingredients, dishes, and processes vary greatly between states, regions, and even families. And while recipes have been carefully documented in other parts of the world, in India, our heritage lies tucked away in people's minds. Without written records, we've primarily relied on oral tradition to keep our culinary heritage alive — passed down primarily through story or demonstration, from generation to generation.
This process of learning to use spices and build flavor by listening and watching is reflective of a larger cultural phenomenon — called andaaz — that is embedded in the Indian way of cooking. Andaaz translates to 'instinct' or 'sense' and in the kitchen, it refers to the ability to cook intuitively. One of the most common misconceptions is that cooking with andaaz is a magical skill possessed only by Indian grandmothers or the lucky few. But, of course, that's not the case at all. Andaaz is a learned skill based on generations of accumulated and borrowed wisdom. The most important thing to remember is that andaaz is a learned skill — it's only by tossing out the recipe book (at least figuratively) that you can learn to tap into your instincts. Andaaz requires you to slow down and really think about each ingredient and each step.
Why wouldn't you just use one of the countless cookbooks devoted to Indian cuisine? First, it's because it can be really difficult for the average person to figure out which cookbook is the most reliable. Second, while most recipes are written with volume measurements, practiced cooks know that volume is a highly inaccurate way of measurement when it comes to recipes. A teaspoon of salt can be significantly different when measured by different people and even the most exacting weight measurements can't account for the variations in sourness of a lime or the ripeness of a tomato. Cookbooks are great for those who already know what they want to cook or for those who already have some amount of familiarity with the food — but for those that are new to Indian cooking, often, cookbooks can just be overwhelming and exacerbate the feeling that Indian cooking is unnecessarily complicated or too difficult to attempt at home.
This is where Tadka Tarot comes in — the deck will help you learn about each ingredient, understand how it interacts with other ingredients in a given recipe, and observe how it reacts and respond to stimuli like the pressure of the knife or the application of heat. Everyone has natural instincts when it comes to food (really!) but usually, your instincts just need an opportunity to grow and shine. By allowing your natural instincts to take over, you’ll sharpen your senses, gain confidence, and be able to make each dish your own.
Honing your andaaz does take some time and practice, but learning to cook intuitively is filled with its own kind of addictive romance — just think of Rat in Ratatouille, flowing through the kitchen with ease and joy. That could be you! And Tadka Tarot can help get you there.
/नारियल/ dried coconut
Sarson Ka saag
/सरसों का साग/ mustard leaves
/कढीपत्ता/ curry leaves
/लौकी/ bottle gourd
all spices on deck
The 7 spices from Spicewalla mirror the spices in my masala dabba. We've got Panch Phoron from Bengal, Jeera from Gujarat, Rai from Southern India, and so much more. Building a masala dabba is such a personal thing — we hope that as you learn more about the dishes you like best, you'll tweak your masala dabba to suit your own needs.
10 unique, hand-painted masala dabbas
These limited-run masala dabbas are my attempt at sharing my mom's art with the world. In India, kitchen utensils are often passed down from generation to generation — I got my first masala dabba from my nani and have used it for over a decade. When you get your one-of-a-kind masala dabba and fill it with your favourite spices, you're participating in a tradition that's an indelible part of Indian cooking culture.