My husband and I eat a lot of sambar around our house–with idlis, dosas, and often just with rice and curd. Sambar is one of those wonderful foods–even when it’s not great, it’s still kind of good. Thanks to MTR, almost anyone can make a good sambar. In fact, it’s difficult to make a bad one, but it’s also difficult to make it exceptionally good. I believe there are three keys to making an exceptional sambar.
(1) Always make and use fresh sambar powder;
(2) Always use fresh ingredients;
(3) Always cook the vegetables and dal separate from one another before combing them.
Rule #1. Always make fresh sambar powder. Above all else, if you want exceptional sambar, it’s time to move beyond the MTR mix. It won’t deliver the results you want. Making sambar powder (which, from Karnataka we call sambar pudi) is very easy and takes little time. Here’s a recipe I acquired through Bangalore aunties:
Sambar Pudi Ingredients:
1 Tablespoon coriander seeds
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon methi (fenugreek)
1/4 teaspoon jeera (cumin)
1/2 teaspoon channa and urad dal mix
1/2 inch cinnamon
5 red chillies
2 Tablespoons fresh coconut or copra
Roast all the ingredients except the coconut. Then grind the ingredients with the coconut/copra and you have sambar powder!
Rule #2. Always use fresh ingredients. In addition to making sure you use fresh spices, you’ll need to use fresh vegetables. The beauty of sambar is you get to be as creative as you like. We often use sambar as a way of getting rid of all the vegetables that are about to go bad in the fridge. There’s no rule about which veggies to use or not to use. I’ve been told that it’s sinful to include tomato, but I sometimes do so anyway and see nothing wrong with it. Also, I love small red onions (available frozen at most Indian stores in the US). We often throw these into our sambar. It’s a pain to buy the fresh ones and peel them. If you choose to buy them fresh–just steam/roast them a bit. Then they’re easier to peel, and the roasted ones have a lovely flavor.
Also be sure to always use fresh tamarind. The tamarind paste is convenient, like the MTR mix, but it doesn’t produce exceptional results. It’s also easy to overuse.
Rule #3. Always cook the vegetables and dal separate from one another before combing them. In a rush, I’ve often seen folks throw their veggies and dal into one pressure cooker and cook the hell out of them before making their sambar. This is a guaranteed way to get mediocre sambar. The key to exceptional sambar, is exceptionally fresh and appropriately cooked vegetables. Therefore, you need to cook the veggies separate from the dal. I do love to include the stock from both the veggies and the dal when combining them to make my sambar. This produces the rich stock of the sambar and holds the ingredients together once complete.
One additional note: I know some folks love to add a dash of hing or haldi to their sambar as they combine the ingredients. These spices, when not cooked, have an invasive flavor that completely overpowers the more subtle flavors of the sambar powder. I suggest not using them, and if you must–start with a vergarnai (tadka/suffrito) and cook them before adding.
Now, as far as making sambar goes, here’s the full recipe:
(the Kannadiga version)
2-3 Tablespoons FRESH Sambar powder (adjust as desired and as appropriate to environment*)
2-3 Cups freshly cooked vegetables
1 cup cooked dal (I prefer Tor dal, but channa is also OK)
1 ball fresh tamarind soaked in warm water for app. 1 hour
1 teaspoon jaggery/sugar (optional, but highly recommended)
Salt as much as desired
I like to start with a vergarnai (tadka/suffrito) and add in a bit of mustard seeds, but some people think I’m crazy for doing this. It helps settle the flavors with fresh sambar powder.
Combine the dal and vegetables in the water in which they were cooked. Next add the sambar powder, jaggery, salt, and tamarind water. Let simmer for awhile. One note, the amount of salt you add can also enhance or destroy your sambar–Too little, and the flavors of the fresh sambar powder fail to come through; too much and you’re done for as well. Salt to taste, and you’ll know what amount is the right amount (usually about 2 tablespoons).