Sambar

October 29, 2006 at 5:56 am (A minus, Beans, Derek's faves, Indian, Madhur Jaffrey, soup)


Sambar is a traditional soup that is eaten daily in South Indian, although the vegetables vary. It has a dark, dusky, roasted flavor that is very satisfying on a cold winter day.

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup toovar (also called toor) dal, washed in several changes of water and drained
  • 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 1/2 cups of water + 2 cups of water
  • 2 Tbs. thick tamarind paste (use store-bought or see notes below to make your own)
  • 2 Tbs. sambar powder (see below)
  • 1 Tbs. oil
  • a generous pinch of ground asafetida
  • 3/4 tsp. whole brown mustard seeds
  • 1/2 tsp. whole urad dal
  • 3 whole, hot dried red chilies
  • 10 to 15 fresh curry leaves, if available
  • 1/2 medium zucchini, cut into 1 x 1/2-inch fingers (or other veggies or your choice)
  • 1 tsp. finely chopped fresh hot green chili (optional)

Instructions:

  1. Combine the dal, turmeric, salt, and 2 1/2 cups of water in a 3- to 4-quart saucepan, stir, and bring to a simmer. Partially cover with a lid, reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently for 1 hour, or until tender.
  2. Mash the dal with a wooden spoon and add the tamarind paste, sambar powder, and 2 cups of water. Stir to mix.  Add the zucchini and chili (or other vegetables) to the pan.
  3. Pour the tablespoon of oil into a small frying pan and set over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, put in the asafetida, mustard seeds, urad dal, and red chilies. As soon as the mustard seeds begin to pop and the urad dal turns reddish, crush the curry leaves lightly in your hand and throw them in. Now quickly pour the contents of this small pan over the sambar.
  4. At this point I usually cover the pan and let the veggies cook in the residual heat of the sambar.  Then when I’m ready to serve the sambar I bring it back to a simmer, and that’s usually enough to cook the veggies while leaving them still a bit crisp, which is how I like my veggies.  But it really depends on which vegetables you use, how thick you cut them, and how soft you want them.  Before serving you may need to bring the sambar to a simmer and cook for a few minutes, until the vegetables are soft.  Serve hot or lukewarm.
Note:  The last step of the original instructions were to fry the veggies, but I find this step totally unnecessary:  Pour 3 Tbs. of oil into a large pan and set over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, put in the zucchini and green chili. Stir for 5 minutes, or until the zucchini is slightly browned. Pour the contents of the frying pan into the pan containing the dal. Stir to mix. Bring to a simmer and cook gently for 5 minutes.

Sambar powder:

  • 1 tsp. vegetable oil
  • 5 Tbs. coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp. whole mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp. moong / mung dal
  • 1/2 tsp. chana dal
  • 1/2 Tbs. urad dal
  • 1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp. ground asafetida
  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 20 fresh curry leaves, if available
  • 12 hot dried red chilies

Heat the oil (yes, only 1 tsp.) in a large, heavy frying pan or wok over medium heat. Put in the coriander seeds, mustard seeds, mung dal, chana dal, urad dal, fenugreek seeds, peppercorns, asafetida, and cumin. Stir and roast for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the curry leaves. Stir and roast for a further 5 minutes. Add the dried chilies and continue stirring and roasting for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the chilies darken. Empty the spices into a bowl to cool, then, in small batches, grind as finely as possible in a coffee grinder. Store in a tightly closed jar, away from heat and sunlight. You can also buy sambar powder at an Indian grocery store.  Depending on the brand, some are acceptable, but none of the ones I’ve tried are as good as this homemade recipe.

Tamarind:

Break off 1/2 pound from a brick of tamarind and tear into small pieces. Put into a small pot and cover with 1 cup very hot water, and set aside for 3 hours or overnight. (You could also simmer the tamarind for 10 minutes or put it in a microwave for 3-5 minutes). Set a sieve over a bowl and empty the tamarind and its soaking liquid into it. Push down on the tamarind with your fingers or the back of a wooden spoon to extract as much pulp as you can. Put whatever tamarind remains in the sieve back into the soaking bowl. Add 1/2 cup hot water to it and mash a bit more. Return it to the sieve and extract as much more pulp as you can. Some of the pulp will be clinging to the underside of the sieve. Do not fail to retrieve it. This quantity will make about 12 fl oz of thick paste. Whatever paste is leftover can be put into the refrigerator where it will keep for 2-3 weeks, or it can be frozen. It doesn’t freeze very hard, so it’s easy to measure out Tablespoons from a container in the freezer.

My Notes

This sambar is delicious. It tastes just like what you’d get in a good South Indian restaurant. My parents loved it when we made it together.

I didn’t exactly follow the instructions for preparing the tamarind paste. Mine must have been a bit too thick because 2 Tbs. of it made the soup too sour. The second time I used a bit less and the soup was much improved. The salt level is also too high I think: 1 tsp. should be sufficient. The second time I didn’t have zucchini so used green bell peppers and green beans, which were just as nice I thought. The author also says white radish, kohlrabi, and eggplants are all common additions to sambar. The vegetables sit in the soup and quickly become overcooked and mushy–which is fine. However, given that they just end up mushy, I don’t quite see the point of frying them in 3 Tbs. of oil. I think 4 tsp. of oil for frying the spices is plenty, and the vegetables can just be thrown in the soup directly. That also saves a step.

If you have to prepare the sambar powder and the tamarind, this is a time-intensive recipe. Otherwise, if you have the sambar and tamarind ready to go, and you just throw the veggies in rather than frying them, this is a very quick dish once the beans are cooked.

Rating: A-

Update March 5, 2011:

I made this recipe again, but I used store-bought sambar powder (MTR brand).  I added one tablespoon and tasted it, and that seemed like enough.  I added 1 very large carrot, diced small, and 2 very large white mushrooms (diced).  I didn’t fry them in oil first — just added them raw to the soup.  I popped the mustard seeds and urad dal in one tablespoon of oil, but I didn’t have any curry leaves and I forgot the asafoetida.  I thought the sambar was hot enough so I didn’t add any extra chilies, but I should have because it turned out to be not that spicy.  It was quite salty though, even though the sambar powder had no salt in it.  The store bought sambar powder was surprisingly good.  It wasn’t as dark and roasted tasting as the homemade version, but it added plenty of Indian flavor to the soup.  The ingredients are all spices except for the last one:  refined palmolein oil.  That’s probably not so good for you.  Overall I was happy how this soup turned out.  I liked the carrot/mushroom combination.   Derek said that the soup was good but not as good as my normal sambar.  I agree.  Still, it made a hot, filling, and satisfying for lunch on a Sunday in March.  I ate two bowls (maybe 2 cups?) and Derek ate one bowl, and there are probably about 2 bowls left.  So I’d guess that this recipe makes about 6 cups of soup.

Update March 18, 2012:

I made this recipe again with homemade sambar powder (about 2.5 Tbs.).  I added one medium zucchini (about 140g), about 8 okra pods, about 12 green beans, about 8 radishes, and one green chili.  The veggies were all nice, but I especially liked the okra and radishes.  The soup came out very well.  I served it at a dinner for four along with dosas, samosa potatoes, and a coconut chutney.  All of the sambar got eaten.  I think next time I would make a bit more (starting with 1 cup of dal) so that I had a little leftover after dinner.

Update November 2012:

I wanted a bit more so I used 1 cup of dal and multiplied all the amounts by 1.33.  I thought I had used toovar dal, but after cooking the dal seemed much firmer than usual—still quite al dente in fact.   They wouldn’t mash at all.  So perhaps it was actually chana dal or yellow split peas?  (I know, it’s embarrassing that I can’t tell them apart.)    I ended up cooking the dal longer than the recipe says, to try to get them to soften up.  Still the dal didn’t fall apart like it usually does, so I added in a bit of mashed potato/parnsips leftover from dinner the night before.  The mashed veggies helped thicken the soup, but no one noticed that they were there.  For my veggies this time I used sliced carrots and mushrooms.  I quite liked the combination, both for color and for texture.    I served this sambar for dinner along with the celery, apple, walnut salad and roasted winter squash in curried apple butter.  Both Derek and Peter really loved the sambar.  Derek said it was sourer than usual (maybe the store-bought tamarind is stronger than my homemade version), but he really liked the sourness level.  The sambar was very spicy (too spicy for Anemone and almost too spicy for  me).  I’m glad I didn’t add some green chilies as well!

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8 Comments

  1. susan said,

    I would give this recipe an A+.
    I have been eating this soup for years at Indian restaurants and always wondered what was in it.
    Now I can make it myself.
    What a good deal.
    Next stop an Indian grocery store for ingredients. First stop was purchasing the spice/coffee grinder.

  2. Varalakshmi said,

    Thank U. Pl try to upload all varities of sambars preparation

  3. Elizabeth said,

    I would also give this an A+, it was one of the tastiest Sambars I have made. Thank you for the recipe. I served it with a sultana chutney from ‘Seductions of Rice’ on the side, which was a great compliment, I’d recommend it.

  4. Elizabeth said,

    And dosas!

  5. captious said,

    Thanks Elizabeth! I haven’t made this recipe in a while, but if I can find some fresh curry leaves I’m going to try it again.

  6. susan said,

    I made the recipe again. I only used 1 TBSP of olive oil instead of 4 TBSP. This way an 8 oz serving has 100 calories. I also only used 3 hot peppers in the sambar powder instead of 10. Next time I will use 5. 3 peppers weren’t enough. I increasws the zucchini 4 times .
    And I still give it an A+. the pot was empty, i was asked twice for the recipe and many people told John they liked it.

  7. thinker said,

    If you use a pressure cooker, it gets the daal cooked in just 10 minutes.

    A pressure-cooker is also very useful if you are using hard veggies (like carrots, turnips, potatoes, etc.) – just throw all that in with the daal into the pressure cooker, add some turmeric, salt and water.

  8. pbelardo said,

    Just found your site. I enjoy your detailed analysis of the recipes. Thank you! Sambar is one I look forward to trying.

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