South Indian vegetarian sambar is not a dish I would cook often because the sambar powder contains at least some form of dhal and I know for sure that I will feel pain in my joints if I eat this amazingly wicked but oh so delicious sambar. Like they say, you only live once.
Tangy, spicy, a little sweet and most of all sour, I’m telling you, I can eat this everyday! Actually, this is really the only version that’s sold here at our Indian food stalls because Singapore attracts a lot of migrant Tamils from South India. So maybe that’s why I like it so much because I kind of grew up with it.
In fact, I literally will drink this stuff but okay, when in refined company will ladle it over rice, iddly, vadai, uppuma, vermicelli, or whatever I am serving on the side.
Therefore tamarind juice is a must or if you are particularly selective about your souring agent, there is always mango powder (amchur) as a substitute. There are also plenty of other choices like sumac which I use too but mango powder is easily available at any Indian mamak (lit. Indian uncle) grocery shop we have here around the neighbourhood but no worries, I have a resource down below for you.
The other must-have traditional ingredient is some sort of lentils to give the dish some body because basically it is like a half-stew, half-soup sort of thing. Most commonly used is toor dhal which is done in a jiffy if you have a pressure cooker like this one. Otherwise, it will take you at least 20 mins in a regular pot on a gas stove which you have to watch because lentils love to foam, froth and boil over. Whew!
However, lentils of any form give me gout so no lentils. Instead I put in (ssh!) oyster mushrooms (my fav).
Let me know how it goes should you give this recipe a try. Enjoy!
Cooking time for sambar: 30 mins tops. Serves 3.
- carrots, cut along the length and into half-moons
- tomato, diced
- cabbage, cut in strips
- large green raisins, in place of sugar for sweetening and to balance the tamarind
- oyster mushrooms
- green chillies, cut into small pieces
- garlic and ginger, diced or made into a paste
- large Spanish onion or the red large one, cut into thin strips
- pancha phoron (or 5-spice) – a mix of 2 types of cumin, fennel, mustard, & fenugreek; it comes in a small little packet that says, ‘for fish curry’
- curry leaves, or kaffir lime leaves for a change (both are great)
- sambar powder mix
- tamarind juice, made from adding water to tamarind paste
- water, not much
- salt to taste
- coriander to garnish
- cooked channa dhal, if you are adding legumes
- Heat some oil and fry the aromatics: curry leaves, onions, garlic, ginger and the 5 spices. When onions turn slightly opaque, add in sambar powder. Give the lot a good crackle in the pot but don’t let it burn. Add more oil if needed. When the spice mix begins to turn darkish and the aroma hits you, now is the time to add the tomatoes.
- Because it is important that the tomatoes need to release their juice into the spice mix, you must help it along with a dash of water to create steam. Cover the pot and let the lot cook till tomatoes begin to wilt a bit.
- Add the carrot, cabbage, mushrooms, and raisins. Stir-fry the lot for a bit for more body before adding some more water to just about under the edge of the ingredients. Replace the cover and adjust the fire so it’s a strong simmer and not a rolling boil. You want the vegetables especially the carrots to soften yet not turn mushy.
- When almost done, (you decide how crunchy you want your carrots to be) add in the tamarind juice, green chillies (don’t add in too early or the skin will separate, no fun to eat), and salt to taste.
- Bring it back up to a boil and immediately turn off the fire. (Add the cooked dhal at this point but you will need to let the lot boil for a wee bit more before off-ing fire. If added too early, it’ll just turn to mush.)
- Sprinkle coriander leaves over the top. Leave the cover on and let the dish rest for a good bit before serving.
3 secrets to this dish
Now, I need to let you in on 3 secrets behind most of these sorts of curries.
1. Magic will happen if you can control yourself and eat it like a couple of hours later. There is something about the spices and aromatics that will come together to make magic. In fact, all curries taste better if you can hold yourself back and leave overnight.
Here’s a tip. My mother will ‘seal’ the pot by not opening the cover anymore after turning off the fire. The pot will sit on the stove till the next morning when she would heat up the whole thing. Otherwise, pop everything into an airtight container and fridge it overnight.
2.All curries taste great when you add a dollop of yoghurt on top of each individual serving. Not to the pot, mind you, because the rest of the folks might like the original as it is. Add to the top of the rice or in my case, to the yellow millet.
3.Coriander leaves cannot be omitted if you want the dish to taste complete. Sorry, parsley won’t do. I know, because when I was living in Australia, parsley was everywhere (even in our garden) but Asian coriander leaves? Like gold.
Oh, you can also add potatoes, white radish, winter melon, drumsticks, snake gourd or any kind of squash. I didn’t have any on hand so.
STUFF YOU MIGHT NEED ….
(which I personally use and highly recommend and which may not be in your kitchen) :
Simple but oh so durable pressure cooker: https://amzn.to/2JxfV8G
MTR sambar spice (a well-balanced mix): https://amzn.to/2t4jLer
Amchur or mango powder as souring agent: https://amzn.to/2t50uJJ
A silicone spatula that will get everything off your pot (couldn’t recommend this higher): https://amzn.to/2y4bOf5
Yellow millet in place of rice for me: https://amzn.to/2JzSOdJ
Finally, if you are wondering what spices and condiments I have in my kitchen cupboard, it’s over here.