The essentials of Sambar


I don’t know about the rest of the country, but Winnipeg seems to have an abundance of Indian restaurants these days. Every time I stop into a strip mall or a food court, there is a new establishment offering curries and samosas with a chai to wash it down. Just the other day I actually heard someone say “Indian food is the new sushi”.

I applaud this new trend of gastronomical choice, even though some of the food court offerings are less than appetizing (Dude, you don’t use pie crust dough to make a samosa!).

The only problem I have with this influx of curry is that the offerings in most of these restaurants tend to be of a limited Indian cuisine. Vegetable korma, naan, channa masala, palak paneer, samosa, biryani, dum aloo, vindaloo, and murgh makhani (butter chicken) are plentiful and very easy to find in these restaurants. But some of the staples found in India, especially in the south of India, are much harder, if not impossible to find here. Dosa, vada, chapati, idilies, rasam, poriyal, and kurd are very rare items to find on these menus.

One of my favourite food items from India that is really hard to find here, is sambar.

Sambar (sometimes called kuzhambu or sambhar) is a spicy vegetable stew made with a broth of tamarind and toor dal (split and hulled pigeon peas). My first encounter with it was in Panauti Nepal at the Ananda Cafe and Guesthouse. The amazing cook there, Moona, made a simple supper every night of rice, papadum, vegetables, a glass of kurd, and a bowl of what I later found out was sambar.

I remember looking forward to that meal every night when the sun went down and the cold Himalayan air dropped into the mountain town. The warming effects of the spiced chowder along with a kick ass chai would be fuel for the rest of the night, and I often had a second helping of sambar.

India ended up offering delicious variations of sambar as well. Highlights were found at the Nagarjuna restaurant in Bangalore, the Surguru Spot in Pondicherry (where I finally figured out that this chowder was called sambar), the Hotel Central Tower Restaurant in Chennai, the Gaylord Restaurant in Mumbai, the Dasaprakash Cafe in Agra, The Hotel Hari-Piorko in New Delhi, and Big Ben’s in Haridwar. All have excellent sambars or variations thereof. Sometimes it was served with rice, or a savory pancake (dosa) or a fritter was dunked in it (vada), or a plain piece of flatbread (chapati or roti).

Naturally when I returned to Canada in January, I sought out the spicy indian soup wherever I could… and never saw it on a menu. I did however find dry packaged sambar mixes that were available in some of the asian markets and some grocery stores. They’re ok, but comparing them to fresh sambar is like trying to compare freshly made minestrone to a cup-a-soup.

I then tried to make my own from recipes on the internet, but my attempts fell short and I ended up with a thin broth that had a concrete like sludge at the bottom of the bowl. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong and abandoned my attempts.

Fast forward to the summer. Every year in Winnipeg there is an amazing multicultural festival at the beginning of August called Folklorama. Basically every ethnic community organisation in town puts on a show in a pavilion (which could be anything from a school gym to a convention centre) and offers foods from their respective country or background. It runs for two weeks and you can read about it here.

This year there were four different pavilions offering Indian cuisine. There was an Indo-Caribbean pavilion, Punjab and Tamil pavilions and a general India pavilion that represented the whole country. The food at most of these pavilions was the same fare that can be found at the restaurants like vegetable korma, samosa, and channa masala (in fact they were catered by those same restaurants).

Except for the Tamil Pavilion. They were preparing their own food and not using a local restaurant, and one of their offerings, the masala dosa (savory pancake, rolled and stuffed with vegetables) included a homemade sambar… and it was out of this world! I ended up going back to that pavilion a second time just to have the sambar, and I chatted up the woman who was cooking when she wasn’t busy and learned a few tricks.

The first thing that I learned was that toor dal and the dried pigeon peas that you find in most grocery stores are not the same thing. Toor dal is hulled and split, and the whole pigeon peas were contributing to the cement at the bottom of my bowls. Secondly, sambar powder (sometimes sambar masala) and sambar mix are not the same thing. The powder is a spice mixture for making sambar much like western chili powder, where the mix is more of an instant sambar like soup in a mug.

Armed with this knowledge, I was able to create a much better spicy chowder.

Now, there are many good sambar powders on the market, such as the MTR brand or GITS, but it’s also pretty easy to make your own sambar powder if you have a spice mill or food processor.

Sambar Powder

Ingredients

1 cup coriander seeds (yes you read that right)
3 tbsp cumin seed
2 tbsp chana dal (Split and hulled chick peas)
1 tbsp white urad dal (Split and hulled black lentils)
1 tbsp black pepper corns
1.5 tsp mustard seed
1 tsp fenugreek seed
10 – 15 curry leaves
1 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp asafoetida
2 tbsp Indian red chili powder

(India’s red chili powder is much different from what we call chili powder in the west. The Indian variety is powdered hot chili peppers, where the western variety often contains paprika and oregano. If you don’t have any Indian chili powder, substitute cayenne pepper).

Directions

Roast all of the seeds, dal, and curry leaves in a frying pan, careful not to burn.

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Grind all ingredients in a spice mill or food processor until you have a fine powder.

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Store in an airtight jar for up to a year.

The above recipe makes enough powder for 6 batches of sambar using the following recipe.

Sambar inspired by the Tamil Pavilion at Folklorama

Ingredients (Makes 10 servings)
1 cup toor dal
2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
4 tbsp ghee or olive oil
1 tsp cumin seed
1/4 tsp fenugreek seed
1/2 tsp yellow mustard seed
1/8 tsp asafoetida
10 -12 curry leaves
8 whole dried hot chile peppers, or 2 chopped fresh ones
2 medium tomatoes
2 tbsp tamarind concentrate or 3 tbsp tamarind pulp soaked in water.
3 tbsp sambar powder (from above or store-bought)
1 diced medium onion
1 cup diced summer squash (zucchini, pattypan, sunburst, scallop squash etc.)
1 diced white potato or a handful of quartered baby potatoes
1 cup sliced tindora gourd or parwal (or other vegetable that will tenderise well)

Directions

Wash and soak toor dal in about 4 cups of water for at least 1 hour.

Cut onions, tomato, potato, squash, tindora, and any other vegetables into bite size pieces. You should end up with about 4-5 cups worth and set aside.

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In large pot add soaked dal, about 2-1/2 cups of water, salt and turmeric then boil on medium high heat for 20 minutes.

In separate fry pan or sauce pan, heat ghee or olive oil.

When oil is hot, add cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, asafetida, red chilies, and curry leaves, and then stir for about 30 seconds or until the seeds start to pop.

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Add tomatoes, vegetables, sambar powder, tamarind and 1 cup water.

Cover the pan and let the vegetables cook until they are tender over medium heat, about 15 minutes depending on the vegetables used. (Carrots or potatoes will take longer than squash)

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Check dal. it should be soft and mushy.

Mix dal well enough so there are no lumps. I used an immersion blender, but a potato masher will work too. If dal is really thick add another cup of water.

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Add the vegetable mixture to the dal mixture in the large pot.

If mixture is still too thick (this will happen if your chosen vegetable is okra), add water as needed.

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Cook on medium heat for 10-15 minutes.

Serve hot with your favourite flatbread, dosa, vada, or just pour it over rice.

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When I have this dish, it’s like I’m back in the Tamil Pavilion watching the colourful dancers move to fantastic Indian music… although when I wail on a tabla in approximation it tends to spook my cats.

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2 thoughts on “The essentials of Sambar

  1. Melody Scott says:

    Sounds amazing, John, and kudos to you for your persistence!

  2. JBJ says:

    It is really tasty and I have no idea why it isn’t served here more. Most of the meals I had in restaurants overseas included a small bowl on the side like a condiment. It was as common as a salt and pepper shaker is here or salsa is in Mexico.

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