Sambar is a quintessential South Indian dish. There was not a day when we did not have sambar at home and sometimes twice. It’s pungent piquancy and its flavor can equally be an accompaniment to rice or to idlis or dosai. Just add a different vegetable and it is quite different. I still remember my mother’s spinach sambar. I use to love the spinach stems. From squash to okra and egglant to bitter gourd, sambar can be made with most any vegetable. Grind up fresh spices and some coconut instead of the powder and you get a very different flavor. A thicker soup like consistency with onions is the hallmark of sambar served with idlis or dosai at breakfast.
Every family had its own blend of the same spices that made up their hallmark sambar powder. Each would taste a bit different. The sambar at each one of my aunt’s kitchen would taste quite different from the one my mother would make. And a special sambar was made on festive occasions with freshly ground spices.
And there are different regional specialty sambars. From Kerala, Palghat, Udipi, Mysore and Andhra Pradesh. Each region had its own way of emphasizing local ingredients by varying the proportions or introducing some new ingredient. There are even variations in flavors between Saivite and Vaishnavite communities in South India. And there is also the sambar made in Gujrathi restaurants.
At its essence it is made with tamarind and pigeon peas, ground coriander, turmeric, fenugreek, chili, hing and salt. So simple and yet so complex.
Mixed Vegetables Sambar
Today’s sambar: Baby egg plants, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes and cucumber cut into sticks and simmered in 2 inches of tamarind water with two tsp of sambar powder, a few curry leaves, till tender. (onions or shallots optional) 1 1/2 cups of toor dal cooked in the pressure cooker. Mix and salt to taste and bring to simmer.
Tamarind pulp – 1/4 cup
Cooked Toor Dal – 2 cups
Assorted cut vegetables – 1 cup
Sambar Powder – 2 tsp
Black mustard seeds – 1/4 tsp
fenugreek seeds – 1/4 tsp
Dried red chillies – 1
Green chiles – 2
canola and sesame oil blend – 2 tbs
Turmeric Powder – 1/4 tsp
Chopped cilantro – garnish
Curry leaves – 6-8
hing – 1/4 tsp
Cauliflower, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes and chayote squashcut simmered in 2 inches of tamarind water with two tsp of sambar powder, a few curry leaves, till tender. (onions or shallots optional) 1 1/2 cups of toor dal cooked in the pressure cooker. Mix and salt to taste and bring to simmer.
Splutter mustard seeds, a few fenugreek seeds and two serrano peppers.
Add 1/4 tsp hing and 1/4 tsp turmeric powder. and add to the sambar. garnish with minced cilantro.
Hint: Making tamarind water. Warm 2 inchs of water in the pot with a lemon size ball of moist tamarind (sold in bricks at the asian grocery). When warm, use your hand to knead the tamarind in the water and then remove the fiber and seeds by hand.