Sambar is a staple in most South Indian homes. It is a spicy lentil and vegetable stew. On most days, we had some kind of sambar for dinner when I was growing up. You usually eat it with rice but if you are lucky you eat sambar with idlis (steamed lentil/rice cakes) or dosa (fried lentil/rice crepe).
Once you have the main ingredients for the stew, you just need to buy fresh vegetables and you can make it quite often (you are going to want to make it a lot once you try it!). You need a minimum of 5 ingredients to make sambar, which you can buy at an Indian store: masoor or toor dal, sambar powder* (MTR brand is good), tamarind paste, mustard seeds, curry leaves, frozen fresh grated coconut (optional), turmeric (optional). I use masoor dal in my recipe because it takes a lot less time to cook than toor dal, but my mother uses toor and cooks it with a pressure cooker.
What’s nice about sambar is that you can make it as hearty or thin as you like it depending on how much water you want to add. It can make a complete meal because it is packed with protein from the lentils.
I had my friends Alana, Paul and Vincey over and we had a feast of all of the food I learned to make at my parent’s house. That night, we got to have sambar with idlis thanks to my mom – they are the white round cakes on the plates.
2 tablespoons oil or ghee
1 medium red potato
1 cup masoor dal (red lentil)
6 cups water
2 tablespoons sambar powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric (optional)
1 teaspoon tamarind paste
2 tablespoons frozen fresh coconut (optional)
cilantro leaves for garnishing
salt to taste
3 teaspoons oil or ghee
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
4 fresh curry leaves (fresh or dried)
1 dried red chili (broken into pieces by hand)
1/2 red onion
Note: I like potato and carrot, but you can use a combo of the following vegetables for this recipe – string beans, japanese eggplant, cabbage, spinach (good with potato), radish (indian variety called mullangi is the best) or watery squash like chayote, etc.
Wash masoor dal until water is clear, drain and set aside.
Heat ghee or oil in a pot at medium heat and put in carrot and potato. Coat with oil and stir a bit. Add in drained lentil and sautee for a few minutes. Add 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil under medium/high heat. Ladle out any foam that comes to the surface. Once foam stops, add turmeric and mix up. The dal and vegetables take about 30 minutes to cook.
Add sambar powder and mix well. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add salt to your taste, tamarind and coconut and mix well. Turn off heat.
In a separate small pan, heat 2 teaspoons of ghee or oil and put in mustard seeds. Wait for them to pop a bit. To help this happen, you can put a lid over the pan. Once its popped for a few seconds, turn the heat down a little and put the curry leaves and broken up chilis. Coat the leaves and chili with the oil and fry for a few seconds. Pour this oil mixture over the lentils and vegetables and mix well.
In the same small pan put a teaspoon or 2 of ghee or oil and fry onion until they are fragrant. Add these onions to the sambar and mix well.
Garnish with cilantro leaves.
You can serve with rice and some yogurt on the side.
*Sambar powder is made from: