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Flavours of Sambar Across South India

Jul 19, 2018 | 13 Mins

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We all love to eat it in some form or another. Mix it with rice or dunk hot idlis in it and add a dollop of chutney on top or have it as a stand-alone dish because it is just that good. Sambar is basically a vegetable chowder with an array of vegetables added to it and topped with a tempering. It is one of those wholesome dishes that has it all - lentils, vegetables, spices and a slight tang to alleviate the dish to another level. Sambar is synonymous with Tamil Nadu but each state in Southern India has its own version of this dish.

The origin of Sambar is a topic up for debate considering much of the culinary creations where never documented. But according to K.T. Acharya, the earliest mention of Sambar can be traced back to the 17th century. A certain story states it was in honour of Maratha ruler Shivaji’s son, Sambhaji, that Sambar was prepared and even named after him. Sambar is apparently a version of Amti where the kokum was replaced by tamarind pulp and toor dal was used in place of moong dal.

Each state and every home in South India has its own take on making Sambar. Five of our home chefs - Bindu, Hema, Pushpa, Kala and Vimala tell us how they make it at home.

Hema is our Andhra home chef in Pune. She is a fitness trainer and is extremely proud of her community. She considers the cuisine to be a flavoursome dose of healthy. She tells us all about how she prepares Sambar at home- “I prepare the Andhra-Brahmin style Sambar with toor dal and there is only one teaspoon of oil used in its preparation. I make my masalas at home which is then used in the Sambar.” She uses tamarind and jaggery as contrasting flavours in the dish.

Home chef Hema's Andhra Brahmin-style Sambar. Check out details about her Andhra in-home dining experience in Pune here.

Meet Bindu, home chef in Kochi. She was born in Kerala, brought up in Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu) and currently lives in Kochi. She makes Tamil-style and Kerala-style Sambar, providing an authentic taste of two states. According to her, “Seasoning in Kerala cuisine in very important. Mustard seeds and onions are added to hot oil and sauteed for a few minutes. Then dry red chillies and curry leaves are added for an extra dose of flavour. This seasoning remains standard for most Kerala dishes.” For the punch of tangy flavour, home chef Bindu adds tamarind and tomatoes to her sambar. On the other hand, her Tamil-style is quite different. Bindu says, “Roasted grated coconut is added to the Tamil Sambar which is not an ingredient in the Kerala-style Sambar.” Interesting how just one ingredient can completely change the flavour of a dish!

Check out the home chef Bindu’s recipe of making Kerala-style recipe!

1 cup Toor Dal
1 big Onion, finely chopped
1 Tomato, finely chopped
1 Green Chilli, chopped
½ tsp Turmeric Powder
Salt as required
Choice of Vegetables (drumsticks, potatoes, carrots, brinjal, white pumpkin, etc.)
1 tsp Tamarind Pulp
1 tsp Red Chilli Powder
2 tsp Coriander Powder
Pinch of Asafoetida (Hing) Powder
Pinch of Fenugreek (Methi) Powder
2 Shallots, chopped
2-3 Dry Red Chillies
2-3 Curry Leaves

1. Boil toor dal, onion, tomato, green chilli, turmeric powder and salt as required.

2. Boil potato and carrots with the dal. The soft vegetables should be boiled separately.

3. Heat oil in a kadai. Add shallots and saute for a few minutes. Add the dried red chillies and curry leaves.

4. One they begin to crackle, add red chilli powder, coriander powder, asafoetida powder, and fenugreek powder.

5. Add this to the dal along along with the tamarind pulp.

6. Bring the dal to a boil. Season as required.

Pondicherry is a haven of French culture situated along the coast of India. Back in the day, it was a French colony and that culture is well preserved till date. In fact, French is still considered the official language of the Union Territory. We spoke to Anita, whose mother, Pushpa, is a home chef in Pondicherry. She and her family are Christian French Pondicherians and they cook quite differently from the Tamil Nadu cuisine. Home chef Pushpa can cook French, Cambodian, Vietnamese and authentic Pondicherry cuisine. In regards to how they enjoy Sambar at home, Anita tells us, "The Sambar we make is very typical from Christian Pondicherians. We add lamb ribs in the sambar. We use tamarind juice, aubergine, drumstick, a spice called vadavoum which is home made, coconut milk, yellow sambhar dal, red chilli powder, tomatoes, onions, curry leaves."

Well, her meal is definitely something to look forward to if you're visiting Pondicherry!

Home chef Pushpa's Mutton Sambar. Check out details about her Tamil meal experience in Pondicherry here.


Palakkad is a small region situated between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It is home to Tamil Iyers of Kerala and hence have their own distinct identity. Since it lies along the coast, coconut and a variety of dals (lentils) are often featured in its vegetarian spread. In conversation with Kala, home chef in Pune who specialises in Palakkad cuisine, she tells us - “We make 6 varieties of Sambar but the traditional Sambar is the one made at weddings. It has okra, drumsticks, white pumpkin, yellow pumpkin and brinjal.”

Check out home chef Kala shares her recipe of making Sambar at home. Considering it is a Palakkad-style Sambar, it is bound to be a little hatke :)

5 Okra
1-2 Drumsticks
100 gms White Pumpkin
100 gms Yellow Pumpkin
1 Brinjal
1 cup Toor Dal (Split Pigeon Peas)
1 lemon-sized Tamarind Ball
1 tbsp Coriander (Dhaniya) Seeds
1 tsp Chana Dal
½ tsp Fenugreek (Methi) Seeds
4-5 Dried Red Chillies
2 tbsp Fresh Grated Coconut
1 tsp Mustard Seeds
A little bit of Jaggery
Pinch of Asafoetida (Hing) Powder
10-12 sprigs of Curry Leaf
Pinch of Turmeric (Haldi) Powder
Salt as required
Oil as required

1. In hot water, add the tamarind. Use the water obtained from it to boil drumsticks, okra, white pumpkin, yellow pumpkin and brinjal.

2. Add turmeric powder, salt as required and some jaggery to balance out the flavours.

3. Pressure cook 1 cup toor dal. Mash it once well-cooked. Add this the boiled vegetables.

4. In a pan, heat oil. Add coriander seeds, chana dal, fenugreek seeds and dried red chillies. Saute for a few minutes.

5. Add the above mixture in a mixer-grinder along with freshly grated coconut. Grind together to make a slightly coarse paste. Add this to the sambar and mix.

6. For the tempering, heat oil in a pan. Add mustard seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves. Once they begin to crackle, take it off the heat and add to the sambar. Serve hot with rice.

Tamil Nadu is believed to be the home of Sambar where Thanjavur Marathas contributed in the invention of the dish. Today, in a typical Tamil meal, the Sambar precedes the Rasam (Rasam is more of a soup-like consistency and has its own kind of powder) while in the neighbouring state, Karnataka, Sambar always follows the Rasam. Another difference between the Sambar preparations of the two states is that Tamil Nadu uses dry Sambar powder while Karnataka uses wet pastes. Also, where home chef Bindu uses tamarind pulp, home chef Vimala uses tamarind water.

Check out Home chef Vimala's recipe for making the typical Tamil style Sambar using dry Sambar powder. This Sambar is particularly paired with rice and this Sambar powder is used in most curry preparations. The Sambar enjoyed with Idli or Dosa is prepared with a different powder mix.

Home chef Vimala's Tamil-style Sambar. Check out details about her Mudaliar in-home dining experience in Chennai here.

Dry Sambar Powder -
250 gms Red Chillies
500 gms Coriander Seeds
100 gms Pepper
100 gms Cumin Seeds
25 gms Fenugreek Seeds
50 gms Raw Rice
50 gms Toor Dal (Split Pigeon Peas)
50 gms Chana Dal (Split Chickpea Lentils)

For Sambar -
15 Shallots, finely chopped
1 Tomato, finely chopped
Choice of Vegetables (drumsticks, brinjal, raw mango, carrots, etc.)
2 Green Chillies
1 lemon-sized ball of Tamarind
¼ Turmeric (Haldi) Powder
150 gms Toor Dal (Split Pigeon Peas)
¼  Asafoetida (Hing) Powder
2 tsp Sambar Powder
Water as required
Oil as required
Salt as per taste

For Tempering -
2 Dry Red Chillies
½ tsp Mustard Seeds
¼ tsp Cumin Seeds
¼ Urad Dal (Split Black Gram Lentils)
¼ Fenugreek Seeds
¼ Asafoetida (Hing) Powder
1 twig Curry Leaves
Coriander leaves, for garnishing

1. Make Sambar powder by blitzing red chillies, coriander seeds, pepper, cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, raw rice, chana dal and toor dal together.

2. Boil the toor day with turmeric powder and asafoetida with 3 glasses of water for 5 whistles in a pressure cooker. Release the steam, remove and mash the dal.

Heat oil in a kadai. Add all ingredients for tempering, one by one after each one starts spluttering. (Do not let them overcook as them will burn and this will give the Sambar a bitter taste)

4. Then add shallots, green chillies and cook until the shallots turn translucent. Add vegetables of your choice and finely chopped tomato. Continue to saute.

5. Now pour in the mashed toor dal, sambhar powder and salt. Allow it to boil with the lid closed for about 10 minutes. (Add extra water depending on how long it takes for the vegetables to cook)

6. In the end, add the tamarind water let it continue boiling. Add salt if required.

7. Garnish with coriander and remove from stove.



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