If you know your South Indian food, they you are definitely familiar with sambar. Loosely speaking, it is a spicy and tangy curry made with vegetables and lentils . This is one description that is not gong to sit well with Sambar aficionados, and I wont argue with them. So I am not going to talk about the different variations but a specific one – Varutharacha Sambar from Kerala. This is a special occasion Sambar, that tastes heavenly with rice or or sides like dosa, idli or vada.
Typically a Kerala sambar is made with a mix of vegetables, toor dal and sambar powder. Sambar powder is available in stores everywhere, and usually everyone has one or two brands they love. I use the powdered mixes as well, but every once in a while I am tempted to make this version with fresh ground spices just like mom and gran used to. The special occasion feasts like OnaSadya are require a sambar like this.
In Malayalam Varutharaha means roasted and ground, and that is the distinctive process in preparing this dish. In addition to the typical spices in sambar -coriander, fenugreek, chilies, turmeric and asafoteida, there is roasted coconut in this recipe as well. Coconut has two functions here – one it acts as a thickener and two it provides a neutral backdrop for all the spices to shine through.
There is a similar version of Tamilian sambar – Arachuvitta Sambar. The recipes are very similar, except that in Kerala the spice mix typically do not contain lentils (urad/chana dal). Both these versions are thicker than the usual all purpose restaurant sambar. Now I am not saying that all restaurant versions are bad, some very good, especially when used to soak idli’s and vada.
Making sambar with spice mix is fairly simple. Cook the lentils – typically toor dal – add the vegetables, tamarind water and the spice mix cook till the the veggies are cooked. Once everything taste and pour the tadka (seasoning) over it. For an extra depth of flavor lightly saute the veggies and heat the spice powder. You could even make it as a one pot dish – instant pot or pressure cooker. Is it any wonder that Sambar Powder is ever popular.
If you were to adapt this recipe for pressure cooker / instapot these are the steps:
- Make Tadka
- Add dals and water
- Cook dal
- Add veggies , tamarind water, sambar powder and salt
- Cook and reduce to desired consistency.
The traditional Kerala Sambar has a mix of vegetables. Drumstick and okra are the popular ones. Okra thickens the sambar while tender drumstick brings its own unique taste. Other popular vegetables are carrots, pearl onions, eggplant, melons, plantains and yams.
Preparing the spice mix is the most crucial step in making Varutharacha Sambar. Fresh coconut and spices are roasted to light brown color. If using fresh coconut roast them first until it turns dry and light golden and add the remaining whole spices. If using spice powders add them after the the coconut is browned and turn off the heat heat.
If there are vegetables that take long to cook – like elephant yam, plantains – cook these along with the toor dal of give these a head start. Toor Dal is usually cooked in pressure cooker to save time. Saute vegetables, especially okra and pearl onions, before adding to the dal to bring out the flavors. With most other vegetables you could avoid sauteing, I wouldn’t recommend it with okra.
To this add the ground mix , along with the cooked dal. Add tamarind water (or paste) and cover and cook til the vegetables are cooked through. Taste and adjust salt. In another small pan prepare tadka – talikkal in Malayalam . Heat one to 2 tbsp of oil and add mustard seeds, curry leaves chilies and sliced pearl onion. Fry for a minute until the pearl onions brown. Add the asafoetida powder and pour over the sambar. keep covered till serving. Just before serving mix and serve.
Wonder what an average south Kerala/TamilNadu vegetarian lunch looks like ? Usually it will be rice , a dry vegetable, a gravy vegetable, something fried (chips, papad), pickle and curd or buttermilk. A sambar like this served over rice is complete meal in itself. And that is what I do often – make one or two dishes that completes the meal and enjoy the process of both cooking and savoring!