Sunday, March 23, 2008

1001 Sambars - Lentil Sour stews

Sambar - A Primer
Sambars are probably the tastiest lentil stews on the planet. With the tang of tamarind balanced by lentils and divinely flavoured by sambar powder, a good sambar can be slurped up like a soup. Sambars are uncomplicated curries, easily made when you understand the building blocks. If you have learnt to make sour curries (kulambu), all you need to do is to throw in a handful of mashed, boiled tuvar dal and lo behold, the sour curry becomes a sambar. In fact, sambar is still called Paruppu Kulambu (Sour curry with lentils) in pockets of Tamilnadu.

The word ‘Sambar’ is most likely not a Tamil word. For ages, Kulambu was the traditional Tamil dish and not sambar. The prohibitive price of dal did not permit it to be used in daily cooking. The technique of cooking kulambu with dal was probably learned from the Marathas. Experts say the word ‘Sambar’ has been borrowed from Marathi. Tanjore was under the rule of Marathas in the 17th century. Legend has that Sambaji, son of Sivaji, modified a traditional Maharashtra recipe and created the first sambar. Probably apocryphal, but what is true is that the Marathas had a sambar like dish (the Amti) predating sambar.

The building blocks of a Sambar are the sour lentil base, the flavouring and the goodies added. The sourness comes usually from Tamarind, and flavour from Sambar powder. A wide variety of goodies are simmered in this flavoured broth. Sambars are versatile dishes and whole new families of them can be created by small variations of the basic building blocks.

Vary the souring agent and you have Tomato sambar,
Mango sambar , Coconut milk sambar (which would be divine with some tamarind added, as done here), More Sambar, lemon sambar etc.

Vary the lentil used and you have Pasi paruppu sambar, Iru paruppu sambar, masoor dal sambar etc.

Vary the flavouring and you have podi potta sambar,
araichu vita sambar, pitlai, rasavangi, Gounder sambar, Udupi sambar, Milagu sambar etc
(Tip : Instead of sambar powder, use local spice mixes and you’ll see sambar magically jumping cuisines. For example, mix in a pinch of powdered cinnamon with
Tamil sambar powder and you have the Konkani sambar powder .)

Vary the goodies ( or
use none) and you have Kadamba sambar, paruppu sambar, keerai sambar, paruppu urundai sambar etc., See Miri’s radish sambar.

Like any recipe, as the sambar moved into different regions, it changed form and moulded itself to accommodate local goodies. When it moved into Tanjore from Maharashtra, it dropped kokkum and took on the easier available tamarind as a souring agent.

Various regional variations of sambar exist within Tamilnadu. For example, in Salem, we bump into garlic in sambar. Moving west across Tamilnadu, we have the Gounder sambar which uses a paste of cumin, black pepper , garlic and curry leaves to flavour the sambar. Finely chopped tomato, onion and cilantro is added to the Gounder sambar just before serving.

When sambar moved further west, into Kerala through the Palghat pass, in the cook pots of the migrating Iyers, it morphed to accommodate the easily available coconut and coconut oil. Tamarind trees being uncommon in Kerala, we see Keralite sambars using yogurt, tomato or Kodumpuli as souring agents instead of Tamarind.

4 July 2008 Update : No Kerala sambars are cooked with Kodumpuli argue fellow Kerala bloggers. I'm also unable to find a single vegetarian recipe using this souring agent and it puzzles me - why has this been sidelined in Keralite vegetarian cuisine ? Is it because of its strong association with seafood (so much so that it is called Fish Tamarind ) ? Does anyone know of a vegetarian recipe using Kodumpuli ?

Sambars in Andhra evolved into a thick stew called pappu pulusu ( Lentil - Tamarind ). The technique of cooking vegetables along with tuvar dal characterizes many Andhra sambars.

When sambar moved into Karnataka, Kannadigas found out a way to cook two dishes in one. They let the sambar rest after cooking. It then separates into a thin watery layer and a thick dal-rich bottom layer. They would use the watery top layer as Rasam and the thick bottom layer as sambar - proving the point that rasam is nothing but a clear sambar. Karnataka also gives us the delicious, greenish, Rayar sambar. This is sambar in which dollops of blended cilantro (kothumalli) puree has been added. ( Thanks Hemant, I learnt this first from your post ! )

In Udupi sambar, we find a novel way of using onions. Onions are grilled on a open flame and the charred outer layers are removed. The grilled onion is pureed along with coconut and this paste is added to the sambar to give a unique flavour.

With easy availability of spices, it is not surprising we find cinnamon and clove in Konkani sambars, a combination which would raise the hackles of Tanjore Brahmins. Konkani sambars also substitute the locakky abundant Kokum (
Garcinia Indica / ‘bhirnda‘ or ‘bhinda‘ in Konkani, ‘murugala hannu‘ in Kannada) for tamarind. Moving north to Maharashtra, we bump into the ancestor of Sambar - the Amti. Amti-Bhaat-Bhaji (lentil, rice and vegetable) is the staple diet of Maharashtrians. Amti is very similar to Kannada sambars and like them, uses Cinnamon and cloves for flavouring. Instead of Tamarind, it uses Kokum as a souring agent. ( Thanks Preenu, for correcting me on this )

Further north, we meet another staple, the Tuver-ni-daal (Tuvar dal curry ), one of the pillars of Gujarati diet. This is nothing but sambar with added ginger and green chilli paste. Like the Tamil rasavangis and
pitlais, you’ll find whole peanuts in Tuver – ni- daal.

Prepackaged Sambar powder has greatly simplified sambar making and has guaranteed uniformly flavoured sambar. Like any mass produced spice mix, the easy availability of prepackaged sambar powder is fast killing off many delightful regional spice mixes. Though it is a lot less flavourful than fresh ground spices, readymade sambar powder now dominates sambar preparation, with fresh ground spices being reserved for special occasions.

Use the cookbook to create scores of your own sambars – and let me know if you’d like your recipe included here.

Here’s to Sambars – May it continue to delight !


Priyanka said...

Hi, thanks for including the mango rasam recipe on your blog. But its not my recipe to begin with. I just tried it out from Sharmi of Neivedyam. So could you please include it as her recipe and not mine. Thanks.

Illatharasi said...

Thanks Ramki for including my Mango Sambhar!!!

This one page cooking instruction is really wonderful. So many types.... Very good job!!!

ssanjay14 said...

come on maan, a tamilian can make sambhar with his eyes closed. Marathi guy can not make one with his eyes open. Sambhar is a pure tamil word.

preenu said...

You have a wonderful blog here. I just had a doubt about your statement that in kerala, kokum is used as a souring agent in sambhar. As a keralite, I have never had a sambhar that used kokum. Tomatoes, yes, have sometimes been used instead. I was wondering if you meant kudampuli which is used as a souring agent in fish dishes, instead of kokum. Its harder to find kokum in kerala than tamarind, my parents who spent most of their lives in keral haven't heard of kokum. Sorry for the long comment, keep up the good work.

Ramki said...

Hi Preenu,

Thanks for stopping by.

Kokkum and Kodumpuli belong to the same class of sour fruits whose outer skins are dried and used as a souring agent.

Only in Kerala is it called Kodumpuli. Up north ( Maharashtra / Goa ) it is known as Kokkum.

preenu said...

Sure they are both in the Garcinia family, but Kokum and kudampuli are different fruits with completely different flavors. Check out

Ramki said...

Hi Preenu,
I stand corrected. Thanks for the links. I always thought they were almost identical. I've a bag of Kodumpuli now - will get some kokkum and see how different they taste in the same recipe.

/Thanks again

Sig said...

Hi Ramki, I've never heard of Kudampuli or yogurt being used in sambar in Kerala.
Kudampuli is mainly used in fish curries and yogurt is used as a souring agent in dishes like Aviyal, Pachadi etc but never in Sambar. Sambar is normally made with tamarind.
Also, tamarind trees are not uncommon in Kerala, tamarind is an essential ingredient in Kerala cuisine and is used in tradtional dishes like puliinji (a ginger tamarind chutney), theeyal etc.

Ramki said...

Hi Sig,

Tamarind as a souring agent was not traditionally used in Kerala recipes, as it is not native to Kerala. The relatively widespread use of tamarind now is due to the Tamil / Andhra influence.

Kodumpuli / yogurt and to a little extent tomatoes filled in the need for souring agents.

As Sambar is Tamil curry, it is now cooked with Tamarind in Kerala.

However the closest equivalents of sambars in Kerala (meaning curries cooked with tuvar dal and a souring agent)use yogurt / Kodumpuli in place of tamarind.

Sig said...

Ramki, I am from Kerala. I don't call myself an expert but I know a bit about food. There are plenty of tamarind trees in Kerala, we have a couple of tamarind trees in our backyard at home and so do most of our neighbors...

BTW I haven't heard of a single version of daal based curries where kudampuli or yogurt is used as a souring agent. I am not sure where you are getting the info from but I'd really like an example for a daal based curry with yogurt/kudampuli if you have one. In fact Kudampuli is used mainly in seafood preparations, I had to search long and hard for a vegetarian dish that uses kudampuli as the souring agent.

I just want to get the facts straight, since I have spend some time researching both Kudampuli and tamarind. If you have data to back up your claims I would be more than happy to correct my views.

Ramki said...

Hi Sig,

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

You've made two points

1. Tamarind trees are not uncommon in Kerala

2. No dal based curries in Kerala use Kodumpuli or yogurt as a souring agent

Reg : Tamarind trees
The vegetarian cuisine of Kerala was influenced chiefly by the Namboodiri cuisine. Very few Namboodiri dishes call for Tamarind.
This was because Tamarind is not as common in Kerala as it is in say Tamilnadu and Andhra. It is still true that Tamarind is not as often used in Kerala cuisine as often as it is used in Tamilnadu or Andhra cuisine.

Reg: Dal based curries using yogurt
I need to go no further than my grandma. She was from Tripunithura, where they cook a delicious dish called Moru Sambar, which is cooked exactly like a sambar, but does not use Tamarind. At the very last stages, yogurt is mixed in.

Reg : Dal based curries using Kodumpuli
I have not tasted a Kerala sambar using Kodumpuli, nor am able to find a recipe online. But I'm willing to be that it is indeed used.
The reason is that you cannot have a cuisine which uses one set of ingredients for non-vegetarian cuisine and does not have its equivalent in vegetarian cuisine. I don't think I can name a single ingredient which is used only in non-veg crries and never used in veg curries. Would you try using it in Sambar and tell me if you liked it ?

Kokum however is very commonly used as a souring agent in Gujarati Dals and the Maharashtra Aamti. It is very possible that its use has filtered down the Konkan coast and found its way into the vegetarian cuisine of Kerala. In fact I'd expect it to see it first in North Kerala, which has an lot in common with the Konkani cuisine.


Anonymous said...

Hello Ramki,

I am from central kerala (Kottayam)and we use Kodumpuli only in fish curry. We use tamarind in Sambar and also in other curries. At home we have a tamarind tree in my front yard. I have never seen anybody using kodumuli in anything other than fish. If you are from southern kerala, they use tamarind in their fish also.Hindu families don't even use kodumpuli in anything. I totally agree with Sig.

Ramki said...

Hi Amonippallil & Sig,

I stand corrected and have modified the blog to reflect your comments.

My quest for a vegetarian dish using kodumpuli continues... I just can't sleep till I understand why this souring agent has been sidelined in Keralite vegetarian cuisine.

Hemant Trivedi said...

Mr. Ramki,

I am sorry but you have taken my version of RAYAR SAMBAR where a lot of Kothumalli paste is used and have tried to pass it on as Karnataka sambar variety when it is a sambr taught to me by an Iyengar gentleman on a train on my way to Ahmedabad about 15 years ago.

I had posted the recipe in FORUM HUB which is a Tamiz portal.

I hope that you would atleast give credit to me for that.

Hemant Trivedi

Ramki said...

Hi Hemant,

I'll certainly accept the fact that I was first intrigued by this sambar after reading your post.

I've in fact read numerous posts of your and was impressed by the amount of detail you've put in.

I later learnt that this delightful variation is common in Tanjore / Kumbakonam.

I'll modify my post to reflect this fact.

Keep blogging !

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