Sambar is a comforting Indian dish, similar to dal but with vegetables mixed in. This Kerala style sambar has a tasty mix of vegetables, split peas and spices. It’s easy to make, and wonderful whether served simply with rice or dosa, or as part of a larger feast.
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Lentils are one of those groups of foods that I was never particularly sure what to do with for years. I think it’s partly I didn’t grow up eating them much. I did always love if we got dal when we had Indian food, but that was about it.
Over time, I got into trying them more, and my kids now really like when I make a salad with French lentils/puy lentils, which are one of my favorite varieties. But I have kept wanting to try more Indian lentil dishes as so many are great for helping them shine.
I guess to be fair, in many cases the lentils are largely cooked down, as they are in this stew. It makes it a little hard to truly ‘taste’ them. However they add a lovely comforting texture and have that great ability to take on some wonderful spice flavors.
Sambar is a dish that you will find in many parts of India, in particular in the South. You’ll find a number of variations, some using coconut, others without. Some have more vegetables than others. But all combine lentils, vegetables, and are finished with a ‘tempering’ of spices.
Typically, in Kerala, right in the South, it’s made with a broad range of vegetables. Some versions use coconut, which is a popular crop there and in many dishes, but not all. It’s a very popular dish and a central part of the sadya feast for Onam.
What is Onam?
Onam is an annual Hindu festival celebrating the rice harvest. The dates vary each year, since it is determined by the Malayalam calendar, but it’s always in August/September. The Malayali is the major ethnic group of Kerala and Malayalam is the main language of the state.
While also celebrated elsewhere, Onam is particularly important in Kerala which has public holidays for celebrations.
During Onam, most Malayali families will make or join a sadya (a special feast), even if it’s scaled back slightly. Other aspects of Onam include boat races, traditional dance events, processions and floral rangoli called pookkalam (pictures on the floor made with flower blossoms).
What is a Sadya?
“Sadya” means “feast” or “banquet” is Malayalam and is a meal served for special occasions like weddings and festivals like Onam. Traditionally everything is vegetarian, although some in the Northern part of Kerala may include some meat dishes.
The sadya is served on a banana leaf with often more than 20 different components. There is an element of ritual to the meal with items served in a particular order and different components placed in different areas of the banana leaf.
Along with rice, sambar is in pretty much every sadya. It also includes various vegetable side dishes, papadam, banana chips and pickles.
Of course, you don’t need a major feast to enjoy this dish, though I can understand why it’s part of it. Don’t be put off by the fact that this has a fairly long list of ingredients, it’s really much easier to make than it might seem at first.
About the ingredients
The base of this is toor dal which is yellow split peas or yellow pigeon peas. This is the most common base for this dish, though some use red lentils (masoor dal) or a mix. If you can’t find toor dal, then red lentils will be fine but remember they will likely cook a little quicker.
The vegetables used can vary widely, and so feel free to adapt to what you have. Any of carrot, okra, drumsticks, pumpkin, potato, carrot and eggplant/aubergine are popular. Just remember to add firmer vegetables like carrot and potato earlier, and softer ones like okra and eggplant towards the end.
The tempering ingredients (black mustard seeds, curry leaves, dry chilis and sambar powder) are the ones that may be trickier to find. Sambar powder is a blend of spices including coriander, cumin, chili, curry leaves and fenugreek, typically.
You can get all of them in any Indian supermarket and most, if not all, in larger more diverse supermarkets as well. They are worth hunting down as the dish isn’t the same without them.
As you might get the impression from the above, no two sambars are quite the same, but this does mean you can adapt to taste as well. I have drawn on a few recipes, particularly this one from A Little Bit of Spice and this from Kothiyavunu in making the recipe below.
Steps to make sambar
There are a few parts to this that you do simultaneously , then combine them at the end:
- Cook the toor dal (yellow split peas) – if you have a pressure cooker or instant pot, this is relatively quick. If you don’t, however, you can still cook them on the stovetop, but I’d recommend you soak them overnight (see side by side dry and soaked above) to help them along.
- Separately, soften the vegetables but they should still hold their form. Some suggest also cooking them in the pressure cooker, but flavor wise, I would suggest you saute them in a little oil and sweat them down in the pan by covering and reducing the heat.
- Sizzle the spices in oil – this is the tempering. Be sure to cook the mustard seeds a little longer and only give the sambar powder a minute at the end, so it doesn’t burn.
- Combine the dal, vegetables and tamarind water and cook a little while. Then add the tempering.
This Kerala style sambar is packed with comfort factor, enough spice without being too much and lots of tasty vegetables. It would be great just as it is or simply with rice, but is also wonderful with other dishes like some Keralan vegetables dishes and pickles. So give it a try and enjoy.
Try these other Indian favorites:
Kerala style sambar
- ½ cup toor dal 100g yellow split peas/pigeon peas
- ¼ tsp salt approx, or to taste
- ¼ tsp turmeric or a little more, to taste
- ½ onion (or 1-2 shallots, depending on size)
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tomato
- 3 ½ oz eggplant 100g aubergine – 1 small
- 3 oz okra 85g, roughly 6
- 3 oz carrot 85g, 1 small
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp tamarind or similar amount paste/approx ½tbsp concentrate
- ½ cup water 120ml
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil (or coconut oil)
- ½ tsp black mustard seeds
- 6 curry leaves
- 2 dry red chilis
- 1 tbsp sambar powder or more, to taste
- Soak lentils night before, if using stove top method (see below).
- If using a block of tamarind, soak the piece in the water while preparing everything else then drain out solids as you go to use later.
- Dice the onion/shallot and garlic fairly finely then dice all of the other vegetables into small bite sized pieces.
- For all cooking methods, rinse the toor dal well before cooking. Then use method below that suits best (note prep ahead if stove top).
- If you have a pressure cooker, place the toor dal, salt, turmeric and 1 ½ cups water (360ml) in the pressure cooker and cook on medium-high until 4-5 whistles. If you have an instant pot, cook on high for 9 minutes, For both, allow natural pressure release.
- If you are using stove top method, soak the toor dal in plenty of water overnight (water needs to be at least to 1 cup measure with the half cup of toor dal in jug). Then drain and put in a pot with plenty of water – around 1 ½ to 2 cups. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for approx 45-50 minutes until very tender. Drain any excess water if it looks very watery.
- Once lentils are cooked, set aside.
To cook vegetables (as dal cooking)
- As the dal is cooking, warm the oil over a medium-high heat for the vegetables and add the onion and garlic. Cook for around 3-5 minutes until they have softened.
- Add the carrot, stir then cover and reduce heat slightly. Cook for a couple minutes then add the eggplant, tomato and okra. Stir then cover again to cook a further 5 minutes or so, stirring now and then, until all the vegetables are tender but still hold their shape.
For tempering and finish
- Once vegetables have cooked, add them to the lentils along with the tamarind water. Stir and cook the mixture a couple minutes while you prepare the tempering.
- Warm the oil for the tempering over a medium-high heat, add the mustard seeds and cook a couple minutes so the seeds start to sizzle. Add the curry leaves and chilis, cook a minute or two more, then add the sambar powder. Stir then cook another minute, being careful it doesn't burn, then add the mixture to the dal-vegetable mixture.
- Stir the mixture through, cover and cook a couple more minutes to allow flavors to mingle together then serve.
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