Category Archives: Nepal

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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Jacob Two Two and the Cup of Tea


It’s been almost five months since I’ve been in Asia, and I find myself thinking about it often. Sometimes I look at pictures and am reminded about an aspect of the trip, and sometimes a sound or smell will pull me back to a place in Mumbai or a hillside in Panauti. A few days ago, while on the bus going through Osborne Village, there was a traffic jam and suddenly the air was filled with a cacophony of car horns and I was instantly transported to Chennai. I wanted to grab the wheel of the bus and go down the wrong side of the road while looking back at the passengers and asking if they wanted to go shopping or maybe go to the beach. I think I was the only one smiling on the bus.

But there is one aspect of India and Nepal that I can recreate, to a fairly accurate facsimile, here in Canada. I can make the food… or at least attempt to.

I’ve been experimenting over the last few months with a variety of recipes with some success (and a few dismal failures). I’ve gathered some from books, friends, and from all over the internet, then tried and modified until I found the closest thing to the dishes I remember from over seas. This entry will be the first of my findings that I will share.

There is a western misconception, perpetuated by the big western coffee houses, that chai is a flavour. Chai actually just means tea, and the word masala means spices, spiced, or spice mixture. So the next time you are in a Starbucks and you ask for a spiced masala chai tea, you are actually asking for a spiced spiced tea tea, and you should probably watch out for the Hooded Fang.

Another misnomer is that masala is a set mixture of spices and chai is a type of tea, therefore all masala chai will be the same. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Every restaurant, vendor stand, and wallah had a different recipe, most good, some fantastic. My favourites include the Ananda Cafe and Guest House blend in Panauti Nepal (made by the delightful wife of the proprietor), the Hotel Central Tower in Chennai, and the Hotel Hari-Piorko in New Delhi.

I ended up drinking a LOT of chai when I was over there, partially because it was boiled and fairly safe, but mostly because it was yummy! Even the small paper cups from the chaiwallahs on the Indian trains or chowpatty beach in Mumbai were tasty.

However, there was one cup of tea that I had in Haridwar that I will never forget, it came at the end of my first day after the evening aarti and a delightful day of dunking in the Ganges and mingling with the sadhus at the ghats. On the way back to my hotel I stopped in at a ramshackle stand that had a fresh batch of samosa frying in oil and I ordered a masala chai, and watched the cook make it.

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He started with COLD water (a bottle of Aquafina in this case) and threw in a handful of whole spices and then a spoon full of tea leaves. Then he brought the whole thing to a rolling boil and let it bubble for about 5 minutes. Then he added some honey and milk, strained it into a glass, and served it.

This technique is very different than the steeping we do in the west where we boil the water first and then let a perforated bag filled with lawn clippings, sawdust, and a single tiny tea leaf, sit in the water for ten minutes (I’m looking at you Tetley).

Now, I’m not sure whether it was the actual taste of that Haridwar chai, or the surroundings and circumstances that were a part of the day that I had it, but it was one of the best cups of tea I have ever had… and of course I wasn’t watching close enough to see which spices or kind of tea he used to make it… so I’ve been trying to recreate it ever since.

And with a combination of recipes, I think I’ve found a very close rendition:

Masala Milk Chai inspired by the Ghats of Haridwar

Ingredients

3 whole star anise seeds (alternatively 1/2 tbsp of fennel seed)
3 green cardamom pods
6 cloves
1 cinnamon stick broken up
1/4″ fresh ginger root, sliced thin
1/4 tsp whole black pepper corns (about 10)
1 bay leaf
3 1/2 cups COLD water
1 tbsp black tea
1-2 tbsp honey or brown sugar (2 is more authentic, but might be too sweet for some)
1/2 cup milk

Use whole spice wherever you can, if you need to use a ground alternative, you should have a coffee filter handy for straining, otherwise you’ll get a strange sludge at the bottom of your final cup.

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Also try to use a loose Indian black tea like Darjeeling or Assam. Right now I’m using a Nepalese black tea that I found at an Asian market here in Winnipeg, and it really lends itself to this recipe. I’ve since found out that David’s Tea carries a black Nepal tea too.

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Method

In a pot, pour in water, spices, and tea, leaving the sweetener and milk aside.

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Bring to a rolling boil and let it bubble away for 5 minutes

Add the sugar or honey first, and then immediately add the milk and let it simmer for 2 or 3 minutes more. (The reason you add the sugar first is that it stops the boil momentarily so when you add the milk there is less chance of curdling. Also, the lower the fat content of the milk, the less chance of curdling.)

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If you used whole spices, strain mixture through a sieve or colander into cups. If you used ground spices, put a basket coffee filter in your strainer.

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This recipe makes 2 latte sized cups (pictured), or 4 tea cups or mugs worth.

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When ever I make this recipe, I sit back and watch this video to make the experience complete.

 

 

It’s either that or pour the mixture into dixie cups while straddling my couch and yelling “All aboard! Next stop Agra! Get your Chai and Chaat!”… but that might confuse the cats…

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