29 October 2012

Mom's sambar

When people learn that you're vegetarian, the first question that you usually get (after "why?") is how you manage to get your protein. What people often don't realize is that most Indian cuisine is rich in plant-based proteins, courtesy of dals and other types of lentils, meaning that Indian vegetarians have been eating this way for ages without having any deficiencies or problems.  Case in point: sambar (sometimes spelled as sambhar). Like idli and dosa and many other South Indian staples, this spicy lentil and vegetable stew laced with tamarind and curry leaves is a complete dish, packed with lots of protein. Most parts of South India make sambar in their own special way. In Tamil Nadu, no meal is complete without it...we ladle it over rice, eat it with idli, dosa, upma, pongalthe lentil fritters known as vada...and just about with everything else! I learned to make sambar from my mom in 2004, when I'd come back after a few years of working in different parts of Africa and was spending some time at home.

Sambar can be made with any vegetables that you fancy...common ones are potatoes, carrots, drumsticks (known as murungakai in Tamil), shallots, okra, you name it! The version that I recently made featured red and green bell peppers and Japanese pumpkin. I prefer my sambar on the thick side so have adapted my mom's recipe to use a bit more toor dal (yellow pigeon peas) than is typically called for -- you can of course adapt to your taste. As for sambar powder, it's simply a mix of roasted and ground spices. Each South Indian cook is likely to have her/his own recipe, usually including coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, dried red chili, roasted lentils, etc. For those who don't want to bother, luckily there are many commercial varieties of sambar powder available in Indian supermarkets (I prefer Sri Ganeshram's 777 brand of "Madras sambar powder").

As for the tamarind paste/concentrate, I have found that the amount you should use depends on the type of tamarind that you have. If you're using the traditional thick, black tamarind paste as pictured below, 1 tablespoon should suffice for this recipe. The tamarind paste that I've found thus far in Thailand isn't quite as tangy, so I use 2 tablespoons in this case.

Serve your sambar over rice and alongside a poriyal (dry vegetable fry) of your choice and some yogurt and roasted papad, and you'll have the most delicious and nutritious meal. Though it can be a bit time-consuming to make, it's well worth the effort...proof positive that a vegetarian diet can be just as healthy and complete as a meat-based one!

Serves 6-8

12 tablespoons toor dal (yellow pigeon peas)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon canola or sunflower oil
Pinch of hing
Pinch of salt
4 cups water
1-2 tablespoons tamarind paste/concentrate
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon sambar powder
1 tablespoon salt
2 cups chopped Japanese pumpkin
1 tablespoon canola or sunflower oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 large onion, chopped into big pieces
1 green chili, sliced in half vertically
1 red bell pepper, chopped into big pieces
1 green bell pepper, chopped into big pieces
2 roma or 1/2 big tomato, chopped into big pieces
Pinch of hing
Sprig of curry leaves

1. In a pot or pressure cooker, mix together your toor dal with the 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric, oil and pinch of hing and salt. Add enough water to cook the dal without burning it. In order to cook it, you will need to bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer on a low flame, covered (or cook as per your pressure cooker's instructions). This may take you anywhere from 20-30 minutes. Once the dal has fully cooked and is soft, remove from heat, mash with a potato masher or fork and set aside.

2. While the dal is cooking, pour 4 cups of water into a large pot. Add the tamarind paste/concentrate, 1 teaspoon of turmeric, sambar powder and salt. Bring this mixture to a boil and cook until the raw smell of the tamarind disappears. Add the pumpkin (or any other soft vegetable that you might be using such as potato or carrot) and simmer until it begins to get tender.

3. In the meanwhile, heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds. Once they begin to brown and start popping, add the onion, green chili and bell peppers. Saute until the bell pepper just begins to soften. Add the tomato and a pinch of hing and cook for a couple of minutes more.

4. Add the onion-chili-bell pepper-tomato mixture to the tamarind water. Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat and simmer.

5. When all of the vegetables are cooked (I like them to still have a bit of bite rather than be mushy), add the mashed dal to the sambar and mix well. Simmer over low heat.

6. In the same saucepan where you cooked the onion-chili-bell pepper-tomato mixture, temper the curry leaves in a scant quantity of oil. Add to the sambar and mix well.


  1. This sounds delicious! Will have to try when I get home. I imagine it would be a nice dish to have on a cold winter's day.



  2. I love south indian food! And this sambar looks amazing...!

  3. Yum, it looks so good! I think Indian vegetarian meals are so satisfying. I have most ot the ingredients now, I just have trouble finding crry leaves. I hope to find a plant one day so I can have it in my yard (I already grow many turmeric plants).

  4. Nice sambar! I love that container too-Mom

  5. Ramiya, I just adore your amazing colorful, thick, and delicious Sambar! Such a comforting thought, that you learned this amazing dish from your mom; as my daughter learned a lot of classic dishes from me.

    With a rich satisfying dish, I could eat vegetarian just about every day, even if I'm not a vegetarian!
    Bookmarking this recipe to make soon!
    Thanks for sharing:) xo

  6. I have an good friend here in Paris who is from India, and she says that Sambar is the one food from home she craves above all others. Having tasted hers, I understand why! I would love to know the mix of spices that go into sambar powder.

  7. Oh I'm glad I found your site. I love spicy recipes. This one looks amazing.