Sambar is a dish from the tradition of lentil-based vegetable stews and soups from southern India. This is our family recipe for a simple vegetable sambar or sabzi sambar.
It is easy and quick to cook provided you have the ingredients to hand. You should try our recipe for sambar masala instead of using store-bought masala powder.
There are many, many variations. In regions that grow coconuts, sambar is made with a paste of fresh, grated and roasted coconuts and spices, instead of sambar powder. Sambar without lentils is called kuzhambu in Tamil Nadu, and has the appearance and taste of what many of us would call vegetable curry.
Sambar should have the consistency of a chowder. Thicker than a soup, but still of spoon-eating consistency. And yes, coming from the south, it should have some bite.
Sambar is usually served with steamed rice as one of the first courses of both formal and everyday south Indian cuisine. A two-course meal of sambar mixed with rice and eaten with a vegetable side dish followed by yoghurt mixed with rice is a typical southern Indian staple. Vada sambar and idli sambar are popular for breakfast or an evening snack in the south Indian states. Sambar is also served as a side dish for dosa.
In this recipe, I have used potato, carrot, green beans, onions and tomatoes. However, you could use whatever is in season, or in the refrigerator. The two things you cannot substitute are the pigeon peas (toor dal) and the tamarind.
Although the recipe below uses a pressure cooker, it can be done adequately on the stovetop, but will take longer – around 40-45 minutes cook time.
- 200 g split pigeon peas – (toor dal)
- 1.2 litres water
- 3 tbsp mustard oil
- 6 shallots – coarsely chopped
- 1 tsp salt
- 6 cloves garlic – coarsely chopped
- 2 tomatoes – coarsely chopped
- ¼ tsp asafoetida powder
- 1 potato – cut into 1 cm cubes
- 1 carrot – cut into 1 cm cubes
- 20 g ginger – shredded
- 100 g green beans – cut into 1cm pieces
- 100 ml tamarind water
- 3 tbsp sambar masala – (see recipe)
- ½ cup coriander stalks – finely chopped
- ½ cup coriander leaves
- Wash pigeon peas well, then place into a bowl, cover with water and allow to soak overnight.
- Put the drained toor dal and water into the pressure cooker and bring to a gentle boil. A foam will develop from the lentils which you should remove with a spoon and discard. Continue this process for around three or four minutes until no more foam is produced. Cover, and cook under pressure over a low heat for 10 minutes. Release pressure quickly. Skim any floating material, and allow dal to settle. The lentils should be soft. Set aside.
- Heat oil in a large pan. Add shallots and salt, then fry until turning transparent. Add garlic and fry until raw garlic smell has gone – about two minutes.
- Add tomatoes and fry until tomatoes start to break down.
- Add 3-4 tablespoons of water from the dal and the asafoetida. Mix well. Cook for two minutes, adding more water from the dal if necessary.
- Add the potato and carrot, mix well and cook, covered, for 10 minutes until potato is almost cooked though and soft. Add more water from the dal if necessary.
- Add ginger and beans and mix well. Cook for a further five minutes. The vegetables should be just cooked and softened.
- Add reserved dal and liquid to vegetables, mix well and bring up to simmer.
- Add tamarind water, sambar masala and coriander stalks. Mix well.
- To temper, heat oil in a small frypan. When hot, add the mustard and fenugreek seeds, asafoetida, curry leaves and dried chilli. Fry until leaves are crisp and the seeds are spluttering. Remove from heat.
- Place dal and vegetables into a large serving bowl. Turn the tempered oil into the sambar and gently fold. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve.
- Remove the foam when boiling the lentils to prevent the pressure cooker valves becoming clogged.