Sambar is a recipe I hold close to my heart, as it is probably one of my proudest culinary achievements, not because of its difficulty (it’s not!) but because of how much this dish means to Jay.
While my husband is the proudest Mumbaikar I ever met (well, all Mumbaikars are proud of being so, really!), my parents-in-law are from Kerala and Sambar is the one dish they can have any time of the day, breakfast, lunch, or dinner (and snacks… my mother-in-law is a feeder!).
As I started preparing this dish when Jay and I lived in the rooftop of a house, where we could only stand in the center of the small room and our kitchen was an oven with two electric hobs on top (that took about one hour to boil some water for tea!), Sambar would take me hours to prepare; the slow heat of the electric hob meant getting the lentils mushy enough would take nearly 3 hours while boiling the vegetables in it afterward was another marathon.
As soon as we moved flat and finally had the privilege of having a gas hob, I would still shy from making Sambar as I thought it would still take me ages and I was scared of making such a disastrous version of it that no South Indian person would ever look me in the eye again… well, I was very wrong in both instances!
This sambar recipe is one I now prepare at least twice a month and it takes me about one hour in total and it tastes delicious!
Don’t believe me?
When my parents-in-law came to Italy for our wedding, I greeted them with a nice pot of Sambar and they asked me for the recipe. Yes, that’s how good this recipe is!
Let’s talk nutrition!
Lentils are the main component in sambar and one ingredient is worth exploring as it is extremely versatile and nutritious!
Lentils are part of the legume family and can be found in multiple color varieties, such as brown, yellow, red, and green; they are an excellent source of fiber and protein and are very quick to prepare while being relatively affordable.
As well as being a great source of fiber and proteins, they contain complex carbohydrates, calcium, iron, potassium, and Vitamin B-9 (folate).
Lentils are considered a healthy choice of proteins and, when consumed alongside whole grains, such as brown rice, they can give the same amount of protein as red meat, while being a healthier choice for the heart. Proteins are essential as they help build muscles, skin, and bones while helping us feel full for longer.
Another nutrient found in food that is very useful to feel full for longer is fiber; fiber may also help in lowering cholesterol and protecting against colon cancer and diabetes. By consuming enough fiber, furthermore, the digestive system is cleaned as the food is pushed through, assisting also with preventing constipation, although consuming too much of it may create the opposite effect.
Lentils also provide a generous amount of folate (Vitamin B-9) which is essential during pregnancy, as it is important for the development of the baby and it is also needed to produce white and red blood cells in the bone marrow, assist in converting carbohydrates into energy the human body can use as well as producing RNA and DNA.
What is sambar?
Sambar is a South Indian vegan soup that is made with lentils, chopped vegetables, and spices. It can be served with many different carbohydrates, however, they are mostly eaten with dosas (thin rice and lentil flour pancakes), rice, idlis (South Indian rice flour steamed buns), and chapattis; furthermore, it is very common to have this dish with some coconut chutney.
~~ Need some South Indian inspiration? Easy-Peasy Potato Curry Recipe with Coconut | Vegan Potato Curry With Coconut | Aloo Mappas
How to make sambar?
Sambar may seem like a complicated dish to prepare, however, like most Indian dishes, preparation is key to success and sambar is quite straightforward to prepare once the mise en place is ready.
To start, I wash three times and then cook yellow split Pigeon peas (Toor dal) with some sunflower oil and turmeric powder in a pressure cooker on low to medium heat; this should take about forty minutes to become completely mashed.
While the lentils cook, chop all the vegetables you wish to use and set them aside; I use tomato, onion, green beans, Kerala cucumber (Vellarikka), potato, and carrots. When I find good quality shallots, I use them instead of onion and occasionally like to add drumsticks.
Once the vegetables are chopped and set aside, I put some tamarind to soak in warm water and set it aside as well.
Once the lentils are completely cooked and mushy (will have lost shape), add some more water (about one liter and a half or 3 pints) and bring back to the boil; add the vegetables you previously chopped and allow them to cook in the lentils, on low heat.
Once the vegetables are nearly cooked (cooked three-quarters of the way), remove the pulp of the tamarind from the side dish and add the infused water only to the sambar and bring it back to the boil.
While the sambar simmers for another couple of minutes, add the sambar masala to a small side pot and add some water to it slowly while mixing it to make a paste; once the masala is well mixed with water and the consistency is quite creamy and without knots, add it to the sambar and mix well.
Allow the sambar to lightly simmer while you prepare the tadka on the side; in a small dish add some sunflower oil and once that is warm, add some asafoetida (hing), mustard seeds and allow to pop and finally add the curry leaves and a couple of whole dry red chilies (if wanted). Ensure the curry leaves and red dry chilies do not burn and add the whole to the sambar.
Mix well and enjoy!
Mise en place for Sambar:
Start preparing the Sambar:
Final touch: the tadka
How to make sambar powder? How to make sambar masala?
Sambar powder is very easy to prepare at home as it only involves dry roasting spices and lentils and then grinding them all together to obtain a fine paste; in all honesty, although I know how to make my own, I love Aachi Sambar masala and tend to buy it often as it tastes very nice!
In any case, should you wish to make your own sambar powder recipe using Indian spices, you can make your homemade masala by lightly popping 2 cups of coriander seeds in a bit of coconut oil and setting them aside once they turn aromatic. In the same pan, with a little coconut oil as well, lightly roast half a cup of cumin seeds, 4 tablespoons of urad dal, 4 tablespoons of dry fenugreek seeds, and 2 tablespoons of chana dal; once these are nearly roasted, add 1 cup of curry leaves and roast until this turns aromatic as well, without burning them. Set this mix aside with the coriander seeds.
In the same pan add a little more coconut oil and roast 200 grams (7 oz) of whole dry red chilies until they turn crispy and aromatic.
Set all of the roasted spices aside and allow them to cool down.
Once all the spices have cooled down completely, add them to a grinder together with two teaspoons of turmeric powder and grind to a fine paste.
Should you wish, you can add some peppercorns to the recipe, although I do not tend to use them.
You now have your homemade sambar masala which should be sufficient to use two times!
This can be stored in an airtight container for up to six months in the fridge.
~~ Looking to experiment more with homemade masalas? Try this lovely Eggplant Curry Recipe | Bagara Baingan | Weight Loss | Vegan Oven Baked
Here are some tricks I learned to make sure I can prepare sambar efficiently, as I do a big pot of it at least twice a month:
Kerala cucumber: as one medium cucumber is still quite big, the day I buy it, I peel it straight away, remove the seeds and chop it as I would for sambar; I put these cubes in a resealable plastic bag and freeze them. When I cook sambar, I just take out what I need and put back what I don’t!
I buy frozen green beans in large packages (I think it’s 700g!) as I use them for multiple recipes and as a side dish; this works out much cheaper and I don’t have to worry when to use them as I know they will be of top quality.
This recipe is a great way of integrating more vegetables into your diet so you can change the ones you use every time; carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, and onions are staples found in most kitchens, which means this recipe can be made mostly with ingredients found at home and no special groceries.
You will love this recipe as it prepares a nice big container of sambar, which will keep well in the fridge for up to four days and it freezes very well too!
This can be served with multiple carbohydrates options and it is a great meal for either lunch or dinner, as well as a great filling brunch.
It is extremely nutritious, flavorful and a South Indian favorite… dig in!
~~ Looking for more vegan recipes? Cook: Vegan
For the lentil base:
- 150 g Toor Dal
- 600 ml Water
- 1 tsp Turmeric Powder
- 1 tsp Sunflower Oil
Vegetables for the stew:
- 2 Medium Tomatoes Diced
- 1 Medium Onion Peeled and Diced
- 1 Large Potatoes Peeled and Diced
- 90 g 3 oz Green Beans, Chopped
- 1 Medium Carrot Peeled and Chopped in Sticks
- 90 g 3 oz Kerala Cucumber, Peeled, Seeds removed and Diced
For the Tadka:
- 2 Tbsp Sunflower Oil
- ½ tsp Asafetida
- 1 tsp Mustard Seeds
- 15 Curry Leaves
- 2 Dry Red Chilies Optional
- 30 g Tamarind
- 50 g Sambar Masala
- Salt to Taste
- Clean and chop all of the vegetables you will be putting in the sambar and set aside.
- Put the tamarind in a bowl with warm water and allow it to infuse while you proceed with the next steps.
Start preparing the lentil base:
- Rinse the toor dal three times and then add it to the pressure cooker with the water, turmeric, and oil; mix well and cook on a low to medium flame for about 40 minutes. 40 minutes on a low flame should allow the lentils to be completely cooked and mashed, while not evaporating the water completely. To open the pressure cooker, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for security; most of the time you will need to remove from the heat and allow for all the pressure to be released from the cooker before opening it.
- Once the lentils are completely mashed, add 1.5 liters (6.5 cups) of water to the pan, mix well and bring to the boil.
- Once the lentil soup is simmering, add the cleaned and diced vegetables and adjust the salt level.
- Once the vegetables are three quarters cooked, remove the tamarind pulp from the bowl of water you kept aside and add only the flavored water to the sambar (eliminate the tamarind, especially the seeds).
- Allow the sambar to simmer for another couple of minutes and in the meantime add the sambar masala to a small pot and add slowly water to it, while mixing well; once the sambar masala creates with the water a nice semi-liquid paste that has no knots, add it to the sambar and mix well.
- While you allow the spices to cook in the sambar, prepare the tadka by warming up the oil in a small pot; once the oil is warm add the asafetida (hing), and as soon as this is cooked (about 15 seconds) add the mustard seeds.
- Once the mustard seeds have all popped (about one minute), remove them from the heat and add the curry leaves and dry red chilies and allow them to fry without burning for about 15 seconds.
- Once all the spices in the tadka are fragrant, add it on top of the sambar and mix well.
- Serve with your chosen accompaniment and enjoy!