Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sambar- South Indian lentil and vegetable stew

Confession time. Even though I've discussed Indian and touched on a few good recipes from my homeland, I've always thought myself least accomplished on earth to talk curry, most particularly the traditional stuff that hails from the Southern topographical region that I come from, food patterns particular to Kerala. So bundled in method ordinance are these stylized dishes that nostalgia beats in on near mention of native curries, chutneys and the like. Such is the case of our topic today. 

decade and a half ago in a tiny kitchen, I tapped into the fabulous world of sambar making. The native curry was my work in progress, not to mention, a concurrent project of pride. Trying to make a better than best, owning up to well known and quite customary cooking mores, yet finding the convenience for an everyday busy kitchen was always the objective of my lazy reflective mind.

Generally, sambar is made on a day to day basis in most South Indian households. It is the perfect complement to a plate of rice or rice based goodies, almost always at breakfast, quite honorably at lunch/ dinner, and an occasional teatime rotation. It has steadily gained its way in the top popular accompaniment hall of fame. This earthy- colored- well- endowed dal chowder is clearly on its way to being India's rank one comfort curry, maybe even the world's (my superambition may ring true one day).

You see, there's a science and art factor in sambar making. When you have masters giving you step- by- steps and how- to blueprints  along with gorgeous rss feeds from sambar scholars, you have to find where to balance your curry, that to in a beautiful well fashioned way. Because horrendously ugly sambar is nonexistent.

So, now I'm free to share my not- so- but -still- so heirloom recipe and take on this tradition- fed super stew that I've been mixing up for most of the years I've been married to JZ ( a way to man's heart or so they say...?). Before that let me explain that sambar is a hot mess of spice, miracle ingredients, fair amount of vegetables that can/ will surely blow your mind. Authentically good sambar gets its distinct flavor in the funky powder called asafoetida. Funky here is good, because it is this plant sap oleoresin which adds tremendous taste value to the dish. This ingredient known also as giant fennel brings out flavors the untrained tongue may not be accustomed to. Wiki calls it devil's dung, maybe so if it's not projected with the right combination of ingredients. Without a doubt, it makes home in sambar, small spoonhalf mixed with others to exact proportions. Combined with the unique spice mix transports humdrum bowl of stewed veggies to superstellar stockpot of utter magnificence.

The ingredients for a sambar masala are not many, but may require a trip to a specialty Indian grocer.  Ideally, this should be the make ahead step before actual sambar prep. No worries if spice powdering does not intrigue you. Purchasing some tradition in a box (which I've been doing for years) will get you quality results, on those occasions where you're not swimming in pools of time. Remember, there's always the chopping and cooking, where your sambar will still qualify for the "from scratch" bracket.

This will be a venture that brings out the adventurous in you, carrying on an Indiana Jones sort of journey, a sambar crusader chronicling your own tradition in Indian cooking. "It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage."

Sambar masala~

  • 1 tsp of oil 
  • 2 tbsp gram dal
  • 3 tbsp whole coriander seeds 
  • 1 tsp whole black pepper 
  • 12 whole dried red chillies 
  • ½ tsp fenugreek seeds 
  • ¼ tsp cumin seeds 
  • In a medium nonstick deep set skillet set over medium heat, pour in oil.
  • Add in all the ingredients from dal to cumin and stir to roast for a few minutes, careful not to brown. The mix itself will render a noticeable "smell of spice air"- turn it off at that point.
  • Get out your blender, grinder or coffee bean grinder ( not used for coffee beans) and bring contents to powder form.

  • 1 ½ c split yellow pigeon peas, otherwise known as toor dal
  • 2 serrano peppers, split in half
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 5 pearl onions (I used frozen)
  • 4-5 tbsp sambar masala
  • 2 tsp salt or enough to flavor
  • water 
  • 1-2 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2-3 moringa pods, otherwise known as drumsticks
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped roughly
  • 1 c water, enough to cook vegetables
  • ½ tsp asafoetida
  • 2 tbsp tamarind paste (I use Tamicon)
  • 2 tsp coconut oil
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 2 sprigs curry leaves
  • 2 whole red chilies
  • 2 sprigs cilantro, chopped (optional)

  • In a large pressure cooker, add peas, serranos, garlic, onions, sambar masala and salt. Cover with just enough water to immerse ingredients and allow dal to expand, about 2 cups. Heat on medium with pressure weight for the sound of two whistles. This will bring the ingredients to cooked and the pea lentils will be mashable yet retain texture. 
  • Take off heat. Allow to rest and steam to subside before opening.
  • In the meantime, in a microwave safe bowl, cook carrots and drumstick pods (don't add cucumber at this point)on fresh vegetable option with enough water and cook till soft.
  • Once pressure is released and cooker lid opened,
  • Add in cucumber and cooked vegetables to the dal mixture. (if there be much excess water, drain)
  • Mix in asafoetida.
  • Blend in tamarind paste. Stir all ingredients over heat for another 5 minutes.
  • Check for salt- if needed, add more. Take off heat.
  • In a small fry pan, heat oil over medium, temper mustard seeds till they pop, add curry leaves and chilies. Fry for a minute and add these into the sambar.
  • Sprinkle with cilantro.
  • Serve hot.
I have many times left out the use of gram dal in sambar masala or have swapped one type for earthier black gram dal. Either way, it's purely a personal taste, and might change with the times, switching in pulses that could work for the powder. With dals roasted and ground, your sambar will have a nuttier, stronger flavor/ aroma and thicker texture. Omitting it will give you a purer, simpler taste. Either way is delicious...I think.

Split pea (lentil cooking for the stew) cooking is easier and swifter in a pressure cooker. That said, if you don't have one, no worries. Just let the ingredients cook covered in a large stockpot and for a longer amount of time. Short on time? Sambar in a slow cooker does super well, with hard to cook ingredients laid in first, veggies towards the end.

There are dozens and more recipes out there for sambar masala and sambar itself. Experiment, see what works for you. Though I'm biased in thinking you will enjoy mine :))
The oil and tempering ingredients are an added flavor at the end and totally optional. You can omit that part and still have a wholesome, hearty sambar without compromise.
Feel free to swap in/out vegetables that you deem fit. I've used cauliflower, potatoes, squash, eggplant, bell peppers, spinach, even broccoli. Not mocking those sambar gurus who maybe cringing just a tad now. Make good use of the bounty you have on hand, it could be well worth your while to test those favorites and work them into blueprint. 
 Help on lentils and pulses, maybe this might help?


"In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths."' Proverbs 3:6 (ESV)


  1. Your pictures are SO beautiful and I really like that bowl!

    Health food giveaway over at my place :)

    1. Thanks Katherine, you are too sweet. I need to come over for one of your great giveaways :))

  2. Sambar is my utter favourite :D
    This looks gorgeous!


  3. Replies
    1. Thank you, Vimitha- lots of exciting things going on over there ;))

  4. Replies
    1. Thank you Julie, I'm sure you have quite a few sambar recipes.

  5. Replies
    1. Yes, it lasted for a while too, Reshmi- thanks :))

  6. all time our family fav.. looks delicious

  7. Wow that looks so delicious, luvly clicks.
    looks wonderful
    Kitchen designs

  8. My acchamma makes the best sambar!!!
    and urs lookg super delicious too.
    Freshly ground homemade sambar powder is irreplaceable!

  9. really nice & tastey thanku for sharing sambar recipe with us


Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me!