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 require a sambar like this. Often this is referred to as OnaSambar or the sambar for Onam.
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.
- 1/2 C Toor dal / Yellow Pigeon Peas
- 1 1/2 C Mix Vegetables See Notes
- 1 Drumsticks Cut lengthwise
- 6- 7 Pearl Onions
- 2 - 3 Green Chilly To Taste
- 1 Tomato Medium
- Tamarind - Marble sized soaked in half a cup of hot water for 10 mins
- Few Coriander Leaves Optional
To Grind (See Notes)
- 1/2 C Fresh Grated Coconut
- 2 Tsp Coriander Seeds
- 2 Red Chili To Taste
- 1/4 Tsp Fenugreek Seeds
- 1 Pinch Turmeric Powder
- 2 Curry Leaf
For Tempering (Tadka)
- 1 Tbsp Oil Preferably Coconut
- 1/2 Tsp Mustard Seeds
- 1 Sprig Curry Leaves
- 3 - 4 Chilies See Notes
- 1/2 Tsp Asafoetida
- 1 Pearl Onion Sliced
- If using a pressure cooker, add 1/2 C dal along with 2 C water and cook for 3 whistles. If using a regular pan add the cook the dal and 3 C water together for 20 to 30 minutes until the dal is cooked through. When done it should mash easily.
Prep the veggies
- Quarter the tomatoes and chop the coriander leaves .Skin the pearl onions. If panning to use regular onions cut 1 medium sized onion into large chunks. Peel the root vegetables and cut into 1 inch cubes. Cut t he drumstick into 3 inch long pieces. Cut all the remaining vegetables into even pieces of about 2 inches in length.
Make Sambar Masala
- Dry roast the coconut in a thick bottomed pan or kadai. Stir often and keep the heat at low
- to medium until the coconut turns golden. If using whole spices add them now along with curry leaves. Roast till the coconut turns dark brown. Turn off the heat and add the powdered spices. Set aside to cool. Once cooled transfer to a grinder and grind to a fine powder.
Put it all together
- In a frying pan drizzle about 1 of coconut oil and add the ladies finger, stir fry for a minute and add the pearl onions. Saute the onions till the outer skins become translucent. Add the remaining vegetables and saute for 1 minute.Add the tamarind water and the cooked dal and 1/2 Tsp of salt . Cover and cook for 5 to 10 minutes. Uncover and add the spice powder . Mix well , taste and adjust salt. Add the tomatoes and let it simmer slowly until desired thickness is reached. Sprinkle the coriander leaves on top.
Make Tadka (Tempering)
- In a small pan heat the coconut oil for tempering . When hot add the remaining ingredients listed under tempering. When the seeds splutter and the onions are fried pour the mix over the sambar. Mix just before serving .
- A mix of vegetables like carrots, eggplant, cucumber, gourds, and yams can be used in sambar.
- When making the roasted masala use either whole or ground spices. When substituting ground spices for whole use double the amount of whole spices.
- For tadka often times dried red chilies are used, though I prefer to use
Important: Values are only estimates. Actuals vary depending on ingredients and serving size.
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!