Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sambar- A South Indian Vegetable Stew

From: my Nana, transcribed by my father in an email

Sambar is best described as a lentil soup that is chock full of vegetables. It may be served over rice with other savory accompaniments such as a dry ground meat curry, meatballs, fried potatoes, sautéed shrimp, potato chips, fried fish etc. I especially love it with idlis or dosai accompanied with coconut or lentil chutney. All of these are (for me), quintessential Andhra flavors from my childhood. As far as I have tasted so far no restaurant can touch the flavors in this recipe for Sambar. Quite simply it is the best. This recipe was transcribed during a conversation with my mom. She is often imprecise about the amounts and tends to leave out certain ingredients at times.

Feel free to search the net for other recipes and modify the list of spices in the recipe or change the proportions to adjust the taste.

The key to making a good powder (podi in telugu) is to roast the spices individually as they all have different “burn” points. When mixed with some toasted urad dhal powder and salt the spice mixture makes a nice snack when mixed with some hot rice and butter. A squeeze of lime or lemon is optional.


Sambar Podi (or powder):

1 tablespoon Urad Dhal (pan roasted by itself)
1 tablespoon Channa Dhal (pan roasted by itself)
½ tablespoon black Mustard seeds (pan roasted by itself)
1 tablespoon Cumin (Jeera) seeds (pan roasted by itself)
8 tablespoon Coriander (Dhania) seeds (pan roasted by themselves)
Several dried red chilies to taste (pan roasted by themselves)
½ teaspoon Asafoetida (Hing)
1 teaspoon Fenugreek (Methi) seeds (pan roasted by themselves)

Procedure for the podi:
Dry roast all the ingredients one at a time till they are a golden brown color and start to be aromatic. Grind to a fine powder and mix them together thoroughly. Store the podi in a tightly closed jar in the fridge. It will keep for several months. Mix with some finely shredded, unsweetened, coconut before using in the Sambar


1 to 2 cups of Toor or Moong (red) lentils
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon Cumin seeds
Lemon Juice or Tamarind pulp (the latter is better particularly if home made)
2 to 3 Onions chopped into large pieces (you can use little pearl onions whole as well)
4 to 6 radishes sliced
1 or 2 carrots sliced
2 to 3 cups of vegetables chopped: Okra (frozen is OK), Eggplant (Brinjal, Baingan or Vankaaya), Zuchini, Opo squash, Drumsticks (Munaga Kaaya, not chicken – check your Indian store) and other vegetables that can stand up to cooking and not fall apart.
2 tomatoes chopped
½ to 1 cup Coriander leaves (Dhania, Kothamary)

Talimpu or Tadaka (tempering):

2 to 3 tablespoons of Canola or other oil that can stand high temperatures
1 or 2 dried red chilies
1 or 2 cloves of garlic (I like to sliver mine)
1 or 2 teaspoons of Black Mustard seeds
¼ to ½ teaspoon of Asafoetida (Hing)
A generous amount (scant handful) of Curry leaves (Kurvepakku)

Wet Ingredients:
Cook the red Dhal in sufficient water to result in a thick, runny slurry with salt and some cumin seeds and the onions (a little extra garlic at this point couldn’t hurt either). When the dhal is cooked add the vegetables in order of toughness and cook till they are tender. The order is important if the vegetables are to have the desired consistency: very tender but not completely mushy. Add the Sambar powder, tamarind (or lemon juice) and coriander leaves to the hot mixture and set aside. You can cool the mixture and freeze portions at this point if you want to use them later.

This process of tempering is a basic Andhra cooking technique that is used in many recipes. Organize yourself with all the ingredients pre-measured and ready for use at a moments notice. It is really easy to burn this mixture if you have to divert you attention for even a few seconds. Keep anything that is wet away from the hot oil.

In a separate sauce pan heat the oil and fry the red chilies till they are dark brown. When the start to turn color add the brown mustard seeds and fry till they pop like popcorn. At this point add the garlic and continue till the garlic is golden brown. Add the Hing and curry leaves and fry for a little while (10 to 30 seconds). Pour the contents of the sauce pan into the dhal mixture. Be careful. There will be a little explosion of sorts. Rinse out the sauce pan with some of the Dhal mixture to get all of the flavors out.

Correct the saltiness and sourness to your taste.

Serve your Sambar with hot rice and savory things as suggested above (even potato chips or deep fried fish work well). Sambar is absolutely essential with Iddlis or Dosai.

Don't know what Iddlis or Dosai are? Well that is a whole'nother post.


cara said...

I'm going to try to make this...Olivia and I order it at the vegan restaurant we go to all the time!

anita said...

Really? That's so awesome that you guys know what sambar is!

I've only ever had it at my grandparents house so wasn't sure how many other people out there had tried it.

I'm going to try making this too, it's so warm and sour and i love how you can put whatever vegetables you want in it!