Sambar in the cup, pepper pickle, mint coconut chutney, and a stir-fry veg main dish surround a Finger Millet cake (Ragi Roti) on my plate at one dinner.
Some of you may know that the title is NOT an invitation to dance (though, feel free…) but to eat a lentil-ish soup/stew that is served throughout the South India areas we visited on our trip. In fact it seems to be a central dish to the local cuisines, served all day in a little (often metal) cup beside your roti (bread) and/or rice, and the main dish (vegetable or meat). I found Sambar SO satisfying that I was often tempted to consume multiple cups of it in one sitting, though the local consumers appeared to treat it as a complement to the main dish and primarily for moistening and flavoring your bites of bread and rice in combination with the main dish.
A few clarifications:
- “Lentils” in South India are not the flatish European lentils in the Family Lens (get it?) but legume/pulse/gram seeds that are in the Family Vigna and look more like little beans.
Red and brown lentil beans (Lens culinaris)
In fact the “lentil” that is more often (in Indian cuisine) referred to as “green gram” or “Moong Dal” is actually what we know as the Mung Bean. The primary pulse seed used in Sambar and throughout South India cuisine is black gram or Urad Dal.
- the regular meals I was served in South India generally shared the same structure: Sambar, bread/rice, and main dish along with one or more chutneys for accent. The breakfast bread was often made from a batter of ground and fermented lentils and rice: steamed in shallow cups these were called “Idli” and were delightfully light sponges that soaked up Sambar or any other dish with gravy. Alternately the batter was griddled on a Tava like a pancake or crepe called Dosa which developed a toasty skin on one side. This pancake was then stuffed with something (typically leftover main dish from the night before) and then rolled around the stuffing before serving. For lunch and dinner the roti was more substantial, typically wheat chapatis, a griddled non-leavened whole wheat flatbread, but sometimes it was crispy puppodums, or other times it was a lighter paratha (wheat dough with many folds and more ghee). Our roti never included naan, the typical leavened wheat flatbread cooked in a tandoori oven (we ordered it specifically from our airport hotel once…), but I got the sense that both naan and tandoori were more common in the North of India.
Most of you are familiar with Dal, the classic Indian lentil dish that comes in many spice combos and is more pasty than it is soupy. It is much more like baked beans, whereas Sambar is much more like bean soup. Indian food is traditionally eaten with one hand, and the roti is a used both as a tool to pick up bits of the main dish, and as a dipper to soak up the Sambar. Ultimately, on our plates of food, everything was meant to be mixed, and any remaining Sambar is usually poured over the remainder of rice on the plate to create a last combo dish at the end of a meal.
How did this “simple” lentil stew grab the attention of my worldly palate? Surprise might have been the first reason: I’d never been served Sambar in an Indian restaurant before. This is probably because I’d never ordered it, but I wouldn’t have known about its importance in this regional cuisine by reading a description. Now that I am a Big Fan of Sambar you can bet I will be looking for it on every Indian menu from now on.
- Curry Leaf:
I *know* that I have tasted curry leaves before, but I also know that I never *knew* that I was eating curry leaves, that it’s very specific flavor wasn’t the result of a mix of known spices (tumeric, fenugreek, cumin, coriander, black pepper, etc…) that become “curry powder” to be used in Indian cooking. The base of Sambar’s flavor is Curry Leaf, which apparently grows wild like a weed all over South India. I asked our host family to see what curry leaf looked like when it was grown on a farm, and Santosh led me into the jungle of his backyard and pointed all around the yard at young and older trees (no taller than six feet) scattered about the edges — “that is Curry Leaf. No one *plants* it, it’s all around us…” You might think that such an important spice (it’s used in MANY dishes, not just Sambar) would be well known in the West (like ginger, tumeric, and all the spices of the civilization shaking Spice Trade after all!) except it has the most flavor when used fresh, and it grows only in tropical and sub-tropical climates. So it was never imported in quantity, especially when transport was by ship.
- Asafoetida (called “Hing” in several Indian languages), the powder made from the dried resinous sap of several species of Ferula perennial herbs. It is famous for smelling strongly “fetid” (hence the Latin name), but then turning into the mellow satisfying flavor of well cooked onions or leeks when heated. It is used in many Indian recipes, but is a foundation ingredient in Sambar two ways: it is toasted before being included in the Sambar spice mix that is a standard “curry powder” for the dish; and a little bit is also used directly in the dish as it is being put together. My brief exposure to this spice leads me to believe that it is the MSG of Indian vegetarian cooking, providing that satisfying fully rounded flavor profile to dishes without the amino acids provided in meats.
- Tamarind pulp as the stock base: water is the only liquid added to Sambar to make a soup, but the broth does not taste thin or “watery.” Part of the full-bodied flavor could be attributed to the Curry Leaf and Asafoetida, but the capper must be a sweet and sour fruit pulp found in the Tamarind seed pods. This flavor has been made famous by Worcestershire Sauce as well as being the foundation for Pad Thai, but I tamarind is a perfect background note to this soup.
- Drumstick vegetable:
In every version of Sambar I was served there were several lengths of this green vegetable that looks very much like okra but starts out as a much longer seed pod. Drumstick cannot be eaten directly because the exterior is so fiberous, but once cooked the tender and flavorful interior can be extracted by sucking/squeezing it out with your teeth. The interior has an asparagus-like pulp plus a few tender and tasty seeds, and it perfectly complements the vegetable and spice mix of Sambar.
Those bits are MAJOR components, but certainly not the only components to this “simple” but satisfying soup. Here is the ingredient list for making about a cup of Sambar Powder (or Sambar Masala) which many Indian households purchase by the carton pre-mixed and ready to go. All of these spices are toasted before being ground together:
½ cup coriander seeds, 40 grams
2 tbsp cumin seeds/jeera
16 to 18 dry red chili pods
1.5 teaspoon fenugreek seeds/methi
1 tbsp black pepper/kalimirch
2 tbsp chana dal/black chickpeas w/o skins
1 tbsp urad dal
? cup curry leaves/kadi patta
½ tbsp black mustard seeds/rai
½ tbsp asafoetida/hing
½ tbsp turmeric powder/haldi
The rest of Sambar is whole spice seeds fried in oil along with some dried red chili pods, curry leaves, and some chopped garlic. After about 30 seconds the vegetables are added (and cool down the spices) along with the Sambar Powder, cooked Dal, and some water to cook together for only about 15 minutes before being ready to serve.
After cooking my first batch about a week ago, I’ve been very pleased to note how well the flavors have persisted after storing the leftovers for future meals over the past week. Hurrah!