I cringe, almost delete it and type again, as I write the title of this post. As much as I love taxonomies, of which Indian cuisine is full to the brim and overflowing, I also harbour a soft corner for people who cannot delve deep to understand the nuances of a certain dish across the length and breadth of a country like India — extremely diverse and equally mindboggling to fathom. But in an attempt to simplify, I fear generalization — something that has happened to Indian food over many years of colonization like the misleading 'curry.'
How do I define sambar to my North-Indian husband then — another generalization because the northern half of the country is as varied and diverse as the south — who only understands the sambar versions served in restaurants like Sagar or Saravana Bhawan in Delhi. I pull back myself from definitions like "South-Indian Dal", which doesn't explain anything concrete about what is a sambar. So, I turn to what I usually do — decipher the name of something.
A bit of sambar history
Some sources like the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia indicate that sambar stems from the Tamil word campāram, meaning constituents such as spices or condiments. It's interesting that the Indonesian sambal (chili sauce or paste) also stems from the Tamil campāram. There's more to campāram. It finds its roots in the Sanskrit word, sambāra which means spices. Sanskrit sambāra is said to have become sāmbāra in ancient Marathi and later sambhārā in middle-ages Marathi and the loanword in Tamil, cāmpār giving rise to sāmbār.
The Marathi-Tamil connection sāmbār is attributed to Sambhaji, Shivaji's son, who was a guest at the court of his cousin, Shahuji I Bhonsle, the Maratha ruler who reigned Thanjavur (presently Tanjore in Tamil Nadu) from 1684 to 1712. When Sambhaji craved aamti, famous Maharashtrian dal made with kokum (Garcinia indica, a plant in the mangosteen family) as a souring agent, and the head chef couldn't find kokum in Shahuji's Maratha Thanjavur kitchen, he used tamarind as a substitute. So, aamti got a makeover as sambar.
Most food historians, including noted academic Pushpesh Pant, believe this theory to be true, noting that there is no mention of sambar before the Tanjavur Maratha era. According to the, Sarabhendra Pakasasthram, a set of two Marathi manuscripts that are now housed at Tanjavur’s Saraswati Mahal library, also lend credence to this theory.
But somehow I find this 'Sambhaji-sambar' deduction, so repetitive across the internet, at the brink of incogitability. I'm more inclined to the rationale behind words travelling through the languages people spoke across borders and the assimilation of foreign words into local dialects owing to cultural exchanges on trade routes. For example, the Hindustani word masālā, meaning spices, has roots in the Persian word maṣāliḥ (ingredients/spices) and the Arabic word ṣalaḥa (to be fit or usable). Anthoshastra has a good explanation for this etymology.
Some propagate that sambar is South-Indian aamti! I don't quite agree with this notion. Aamti uses different spices than sambar, usually the blend called goda masala, and kokum for sourness. While there's a tendency to compare kokum with tamarind, both have different flavour profiles. Kokum is mellowed with a floral tart taste. Tamarind on the other hand is more pungently tangy. Just as there exist variations in aamti across Maharashtra, variations in sambar also exist across the five states in south India — Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
Anatomy of Sambar
The definition of sambar will perhaps remain inexplicit but understanding its anatomy can spur the idea underneath it, the soul of sambar.
A sambar isn't a sambar without lentils. Toor dal (pigeon peas) is preferred but adding few spoons of red lentils like masoor is not unknown. There are also sambars that use horsegram, especially in Indian winters.
The boiled lentils are flavoured with tamarind and spices, and sometimes coconut and jaggery. There are different ways in how these ingredients are added depending on the region where the sambar is made.
Vegetables are also added to a sambar. Most common ones are different kinds of pumpkins and gourds, drumsticks, eggplants, okra, beans, carrots, onions, yam, raw banana, etc. The type of vegetables added again vary from region to region.
To the concoction of boiled lentils and vegetables, which have been spiced with a dry powder (sambar podi) or a freshly prepared wet masala and soured with tamarind (and sweetened with jaggery), a seasoning is added as a top note which typically has mustard (and cumin seeds), curry leaves, dry red chilies and at times, asafoetida. This tempering can be done in the beginning of cooking the vegetables also.
A note on the varieties of sambar
In Tamil Nadu, we usually find dry powders or podis, a blend of spices, being added to sambars and the consistency of sambar is thinner. But there are exceptions to this of course! (How can there not be? It's Indian cuisine after all!) For example, the Arachuvitta Sambar made in Tamil homes which uses some kind of arachu (gourd) along with other vegetables like drumsticks and a paste made of roasted spices ground with freshly grated coconut.
In Karnataka, where sambars may take the form of huli (meaning sour and often resembles a gravy), we find the usage of wet pastes to be predominant, which in turn result in slightly thicker than the Tamil sambars.
Although sambar has its history tangled between Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, it's rarely called sambar in Tamil homes. An umbrella term kuzhambu, (meaning 'gravy'), is commonly used instead.
The Udupi version of sambar in Karnataka (also called koddel in Tulu and kolombo in Konkani) is sweeter owing to the use of coconut and jaggery and typically uses vegetables like white and red pumpkin, drumsticks and okra.
In Andhra Pradesh, the term sambar is rarely used like Tamil homes. The Andhra pappu chaaru is thicker and spicier, which is actually a rasam-like dal than a sambar. In the Nizami cuisine influenced Telangana, there's kaddu ka dalcha, which has meat and chana dal along with sambar-like masala.
The Palakkad style varutharacha sambar from Kerala also uses coconut like the Udipi sambar and almost any kind of vegetable, which is a different practice from Tamil sambars or Andhra pappu chaarus.
As a general practice, tiffin sambars — served with idli, dosa or vadas — are thinner while the ones served in main course with rice, puttu or appams are thicker. Again, exceptions always exist!
Sambar Podi vs Fresh Sambar Masala Paste
This or that! To do or not to do! The dilemma for anyone learning their ways through Indian cooking! Like many other dishes in the Indian food repertoire, there isn't a rule of thumb for sambar as well. Yes, I'm disappointing you after writing elaborately about the anatomy of sambar. Since there isn't a universal rule, there isn't a dictum to use freshly made wet sambar paste or pre-made dry sambar powder or podi. Every family, community and region have their own preferences and their personal touch when it comes to the sambar masala, whether wet or dry.
Although, I feel from my experience that a freshly made wet paste makes most sense when using coconut in the sambar. Grated (or desiccated if you don't have fresh coconut) when ground with roasted spices and some water yields a luscious paste, which when added to the boiling vegetables along with cooked lentils generates aromas that titillate our olfactory senses — much needed to create an inviting setup for the food before it's eaten.
Despite the indisputable goodness of a freshly made wet sambar masala paste, we would agree that we all have days when a homemade spice blend feels like a gift-sent-from-another-world! Just like a wet paste, a sambar powder is crucial to how your sambar will taste. So, a freshly homemade sambar podi has fair chances to win brownie points than a store-bought one which has aged for a period unknown and is destined to sit on your kitchen shelves indefinitely again!
Of course, there's personal choice of brands one may rely to buy a sambar powder like rasam podis. However, I find it pointless to buy ready masalas when I can easily make them at home. Clearly, I don't go by the notion of one-size-fits-all, and so regularly buying a packet of masala powder doesn't come to me naturally. I prefer making a wet sambar masala paste for coconut based sambars and use my own homemade sambar powder for non-coconut ones.
My Sambar Powder
The internet is everyone's recipe book in this age, and no doubt a Google search will provide you with numerous sambar powder recipes. In a country thronged with people and their diverse communities who have their own masala powders or set spices for everything cooked in their kitchen, does it make any sense to write down my sambar powder recipe then?
In Indian cooking, more often than not, we find ourselves in the grips of 'virtue or aroma of the hands (of the cook)' — kai-gunam, hather gun, kai-mannam, haathon mein swad, nafas — which connects food's preparation, taste and life to the hands of who create it. This credence is a way of life in our kitchens, and perhaps also one of the reasons why Indian food has never been documented as a book of generic sauces, mixes and pastes. Food as we understand, experience and eat sojourns amidst the hands that make it and carries the essence of those hands. So, can there ever be a blanket recipe for sambar powder or rasam podi or a biryani, chole or garam masala? The resounding answer is no.
However, there's value in sharing our ways of doing with others, of knowing those little variations that add some tones to a dish we wouldn't otherwise know. Most sambar podis use coriander, cumin, fenugreek, peppercorns, chana tur or urad dals and dry red chilies. Some have curry leaves additionally. But how much of what? There's no universal claim to the quantities either but it's the ratio of these ingredients that will precisely alter how your sambar powder turns out, and the sambar as a result, along with the magic in your hands of course!
This is straightforward no-fuss sambar powder that I and my sister M make at our homes. I learnt it from her and then variated after seeing how my Tamil friends make their sambar powders at home. I make it in medium sized batches and churn out another batch when one gets over. It's always fresh, aromatic and assures my sambar is flavorsome. I use it to make both less-spicy-less-tangy tiffin sambars as well as more-spicy-more-veggie-laden sambars that we eat with rice.
Enough said! Here's how I make it!
Ingredients and quantities explained
1 cup each of coriander seeds and dry red chilies I like the citrus notes of coriander and a good spice factor from red chilies in my sambar. I use good sour tamarind pulp to balance the spice and often add a hint of jaggery if I'm cooking for someone who don't enjoy the hotness of chilies. You can de-seed the red chilies if you like it less hot. The red chilies also add a deep beautiful colour to the sambar powder.
1/3 cup each of pigeon peas (tur dal) and Bengal gram (chana dal) Dals help thicken the sambar and also add nuttiness. Sometimes I add 1/4 cup of urad dal as well if I feel like giving it a Kerala sambar taste.
1/3 cup of black peppercorns (1 tbsp), cumin seeds (1 tbsp) and fenugreek seeds (2 tbsp) Fenugreek seeds are most crucial for that typical sambar like smell and they add some much needed bitter notes. Cumin and peppercorns together add a spicy note.
(Optional) 1 tsp turmeric powder and a pinch of salt Turmeric for the colour and salt to bring the flavours together. You can skip the turmeric as we add turmeric to the dal anyway when cooking the sambar.
(Optional) 1/3 cup curry leaves Adding curry leaves adds a slightly different flavour and aroma to the sambar. I add curry leaves in the tempering anyway but sometimes ground curry leaves in the sambar powder itself takes it far indeed!
Heat a pan and simply dry roast these ingredients in the order in which they're listed, except turmeric and salt, and keep them aside to cool. When cooled, grind in a spice mixer to a fine powder. This makes about 2 cups (nearly 500 gm) of sambar powder. You can easily reduce the quantities to half and make about 250 gm or 1 cup of sambar powder that will stay fresh and smell great for many weeks.
Recipe for an everyday sambar that you can eat with idlis, dosas, vadas, uttapams or rice.
For tamarind pulp 1 tbsp or a lime sized ball of tamarind 1/3 cup water
For cooking dal 1/2 cup tur dal (pigeon peas) - you can use 1/2 cup tur and 1/4 cup red masoor also 1/4 tsp turmeric powder 1 + 1/2 cups of water
For cooking vegetables 1 to 1+1/2 cups of medium chopped veggies like eggplant, okra, pumpkin, carrots, beans, radish, ash gourd, etc. I even add atypical vegetables like celery, acorn or butternut squash, etc. 1-2 drumsticks, peeled and chopped into 3-4 inches sticks 5-6 pearl onions or 1 small red onion sliced (optional) 1 tomato, diced or quartered (optional) - I use it only when I don't have enough tamarind Note: You don't have to add all vegetables but kind of vegetables you use decides the flavour of your sambar along with the sambar masala. 1/4 tsp turmeric powder 1/4 tsp red chili powder (optional) - I use it if my sambar powder is not inherently spicy or to make it more spicy for serving a veggie-laden sambar with rice 2 cups of water Salt to taste
(optional) 1 tsp jaggery if you like a slightly sweet taste in the sambar
For tempering 1-2 tbsp untoasted sesame oil or sunflower or coconut oil or ghee 1/2 tsp mustard seeds 2 dried red chilies, halved and seeds removed 10-12 curry leaves 1/4 tsp asafoetida
Make the tamarind pulp Soak the tamarind in warm water for 20 to 30 minutes. Squeeze the tamarind in the water itself. Discard the strained tamarind and keep the pulp aside.
Cook the dal Add the dal, turmeric powder and salt along with water to a pressure cooker and cook for 9-10 minutes on medium heat. When done, take off the heat and keep aside and let the pressure release on its own. When you open it, the dal should be fully cooked and mushy. Use a wire whisk to mash the dal completely so as the lentils do not hold shape anymore.
Cook the vegetables While the dal is boiling, add the vegetables along with the pearl onions (and tomatoes if using) in a deep vessel or kadai, and sprinkle the turmeric (and red chili if using) powders. You can add the onions in the tempering instead if you wish. Add water and salt and let the vegetables cook on medium heat for 10-15 minutes. Add the harder vegetables first and and the softer vegetables like okra and eggplant halfway between other vegetables. You can cover and cook for sometime but do not overcook the vegetables.
Make the sambar Once the vegetables are tender, add the sambar powder, cooked dal and the tamarind pulp, (jaggery if using) and mix well. Simmer on medium heat till sambar comes to a boil and then lower the heat.
Temper the sambar In a small tadka pan, heat oil. Then add mustard seeds, (onions if using in tempering), dry red chilies, curry leaves and asafoetida. Fry till the curry leaves become crisp, onions are slightly brownish and red chilies change colour. (Take care not to burn the tempering. Take the pan off heat if things are getting out of control and bring it back to heat after few seconds.) Immediately add this tempering to the sambar and cover the vessel/kadai to let the flavours soak inside. Switch off the heat for the sambar and let it remain covered for 4-5 minutes before serving.
To serve with idli, dosas, vadas and uttapams, make a thinner sambar, which implies, add more water. To serve with rice, make a thicker sambar. When you store leftover sambar in the fridge, it will thicken up the next day. You can add water and salt to adjust taste and thin it down.