When I was growing up, in Dallas, Texas, I’d sit in the kitchen as my mother put lentils, along with a spoonful of sunflower-yellow turmeric and a handful of salt, in the pressure cooker to make dal. She’d put rice in the microwave (yes, we cooked rice in a microwave) and heat oil in a pan to sauté onions and vegetables. Then she’d take out her butter warmer to make chhonk, a mixture of spices cooked in fat to release their essential oils. She’d plop in some ghee and let it melt. Then she’d throw in a spoonful of cumin seeds and wait for them to sizzle, filling the kitchen with a woody aroma. She’d toss in a pinch of red-chili powder, a pinch of asafetida (a common spice in Indian cooking), and two long, dried red chilis, which immediately grew crisp and glistening. Then she’d dump the mixture into the dal, vivifying an otherwise humble staple with a rich, complex flavor. “Chhonk lag gadiya,” she’d say-—“I’ve added the chhonk”—and I’d know that it was time for me to set the table.
The closest English translation for “chhonk,” a Hindi word, is “tempering,” a term that describes techniques such as the process of slowly melting chocolate until it’s smooth and glossy or whisking a bit of a hot sauce into egg yolks to heat them up without scrambling them. In India, chhonk is so common and so essential that practically every region has its own name for it: it’s “tadka” in Punjab, “vagar” in Gujarat, “oggarane” in Karnataka. (I’ve always thought of the word “chhonk,” as an onomatopoeia, approximating the sound of spices dancing around in a pan.) One can often tell what part of India a person is from based on his or her last name; Madhur Jaffrey, the great Indian cookbook author, told me that she knew my family was from Uttar Pradesh when she read my cookbook “Indian-ish” and saw the word “chhonk.”
In writing “Indian-ish,” which is about the Indian-American food I grew up eating, I found that chhonk was used in a surprising number of my mother’s recipes. In her saag paneer—which features feta instead of paneer, hard, white Indian cheese—the spinach gravy is infused with cumin and coriander, and then a chhonk of asafetida, cumin, and red-chili powder is swirled over the top, providing nuttiness and heat. In her chili-peanut rice, shiny mustard seeds and curry leaves provide color and crunch; a salad of grated carrots tossed in lime juice and salt is improved immeasurably by a drizzle of the same chhonk.
Over time, I’ve discovered chhonk’s potential to enhance dishes outside of Indian cuisine. I made a plate of nachos and decided, spontaneously, to make a chhonk of cumin seeds, paprika, and dried red chilis to pour over the bubbling cheese. In a recipe for grilled steak, I subbed garlic compound butter with a topping of chhonk, made with bay leaves, fennel seeds, and slivers of garlic. A chhonk made with cumin seeds, star anise, and chili flakes provided spice and texture in a dish of slippery ramen in miso broth mimicking the chili oil that is often served alongside the soup. Many cultures have their own chhonk-like condiments, such as Lao Gan Ma Chili Crisp, a popular brand of savory Chinese paste, which is made by cooking chili flakes, onions, MSG, and peanuts in oil, on high heat.
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Making chhonk is simple, but it does require vigilance. If the pan stays on the heat even a few seconds too long, the spices will burn. The first time you throw curry leaves into hot oil, the noise might make you think that someone has set off fireworks in your kitchen. Unlike other condiments, which can be cooked in large batches and stored, chhonk should be prepared à la minute, because the pungency of the spices fades over time. Once you get the hang of it, though, you can make a chhonk out of most any combination of herbs and spices. Cook rosemary and peppercorns in olive oil, until they become fragrant, then drizzle the Italian-ish chhonk over a cannellini-bean soup. A dill-and-thyme chhonk makes a worthy topping for a baked potato. In these and most other cases, though, my mom’s chhonk of cumin and red chili will do you just as well.
Chhonk with Cumin Seeds and Red Chile
2 Tbsp. ghee or olive oil
2 tsp. cumin seeds
2 dried red chilis
¼ tsp. red chile powder (paprika or cayenne also work fine)
Pinch of asafetida (optional)
1. In a small pan or butter warmer, over medium-high heat, warm ghee (or oil).
2. Once ghee melts (or oil begins to shimmer), add cumin seeds and cook until they start to sizzle and brown, which should take a few seconds.
3. Immediately remove from heat and stir in dried chiles, red chile powder, and asafetida (if using).
4. Use this chhonk on lentils, nachos, potatoes, bell peppers, chicken, steak, or anything with cheese.
Chhonk Curry Leaves and Mustard Seeds
2 Tbsp. ghee or olive oil
2 tsp. black mustard seeds
10 fresh curry leaves
1. In a butter warmer or small pan, over medium-high heat, warm oil.
2. Once oil begins to shimmer, add black mustard seeds and cook until they start to pop and sputter, which should be within seconds.
3. Immediately remove from heat, add curry leaves, and toss to coat the leaves in the oil.
4. Use this chhonk on grains, squash, carrots, cucumber, rice, noodles, or fish.