Sambars are those beautiful unctuous creamy soupy dishes quintessentially South Indian. A sambar consists of pureed toor dal lentils cooked with fresh vegetables, tamarind and spices. Eaten daily, the spice mixes used vary in content and flavour from house to house. Everyone claims to have the best recipe, and of course they are right. It is a very important dish to all South Indians, and vada sambar and idli sambar are popular breakfast foods.
Sambar Powder is usually, but not always, a fairly warming masala or mix of spices blended to particularly suit sambar.
Sambar Powder and Paste
Sambar Powder is indispensable in South India. In some parts of India, for example Kerala, Sambar Paste is made, rather than a powder.
You can make sambar from scratch without using a pre-prepared sambar powder, as detailed here. Alternatively, you can use a home made sambar masala (sambar spice mix). Or for greater variation in the spices that you use, it is possible to use a simple sambar powder as a base and add a selection of other spices to the dish during cooking.
Although you can purchase sambar powder, it is always best to make your own sambar powder or paste, if you can. Use a blender or grinder, for a finer powder, or grind with a mortar with a pestle. The aroma of it alone will have you wanting to make a fresh batch each time you make sambar.
The powder can be stored in an airtight container for several months, but every self respecting South Indian household will make it often. The recipes below make about 1.25 cups, but you can scale it down to make smaller amounts.
The amounts mentioned in many recipes for masalas are guides only. Each family in South India will have their own sambar powder or paste recipe, and their own making the sambar using the powder or paste. Experiment with the recipes below until you find one that you suits your tastes and cooking styles.
Raw Powders and Roasted Powders
The spices used in sambar powder can be roasted or fried before grinding, or can be ground raw. In the latter case, the powder is either briefly roasted just before use or is cooked longer to cook out the raw spices.
It is important to know whether you are using a pre-roasted powder or not. If you are using roasted powder, it is better to avoid roasing the powder when cooking a sambar. And a general rule for making spice mixes – if the components of the spice mix include some that burn quickly (eg sesame seed, coconut etc), it is best to roast them off individually as you make the powder.
Cook and See, and Meenakshi Ammal
S. Meenakshi Ammal, has several variations on sambar in her books Cook and See. Her recipes for sambar powder will make any Western cook weak at the knees when they see the quantities. But it can be scaled down to more reasonable quantities (and with a little less heat).
Sambar Powder Recipes
Raw Sambar Powder
Amma’s initial recipe makes about a kilo of sambar powder. It involves:
350g of dried red chillies, preferably ones dried in the sun
350g coriander seed
3.5 Tblspn black pepper
7 sticks of fresh turmeric
1/2 cup bengal gram (channa dal)
1 cup toor dal
Grind the ingredients and mix the powders together well.
She suggests grinding 700g of chillies, taking half to use in other ways, and half to mix with the spices above, ground.
In this recipe she does not suggest roasting the spices, so you can, if you choose, roast the powder a little before using.
If you want to make a smaller quantity of sambar powder, something suitable for the modern kitchen, take about 10 dried red chillies, 1 Tblspn of coriander powder, 1/3 tspn black pepper, 1/3 tspn turmeric, 1 Tblspn chickpeas (bengal gram) 1 Tblspn toor dal (red gram dal). If you want to fry off the spices as you make the powder, you can do that. I like to throw everything into the spice grinder and, like Amma, fry off the powder when making the dish.
Roasted Sambar Powder
Amma also includes the following roasted sambar recipe. The amounts are large, so you can scale down should you wish to make a smaller batch.
10 – 12 cups dried red chillies
0.75 cups toor dal
0.25 cup bengal gram dal (channa dal)
1 cup urad dal
0.25 cup black pepper
3 cups coriander seed
20 g turmeric (a small stick of fresh, or use 15 g powder)
7 – 8 tspns ghee
Fry the red chillies off in the oil without allowing them to turn black. Roast the rest of the ingredients in a dry pan, separately.
Grind the coriander, turmeric and curry leaves and then sieve them. Add any coarser pieces to the chillies to be ground again.
Grind the chillies and sieve.
Grind the lentils.
Mix all of the powders together well.
This powder is not fried or roasted before use.
1/8 cup fenugreek seeds can be added if using the powder for Vatral Kuzhambu.
A More Complex Roasted Sambar Powder
1 tspn Ghee
5 Tblspn coriander seeds
1 tspn mustard seeds
1 tspn moong dal
0.5 tspn chana dal
0.5 tspn urad dal
1 tspn fenugreek seeds
1 tspn black peppercorns
0.25 tspn asafoetida
1 tspn cumin seeds
20 curry leaves
12 dried chillies
1 stick cinnamon
1 tspn turmeric powder
Heat the ghee in a kadhai, heavy frying pan or wok over a medium heat.
Put in the dals, coriander, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, peppercorns, asafoetida, cinnamon and cumin seeds. Stir roast for 3 – 4 minutes, allowing the mustard seeds to pop.
Add the curry leaves, stir and roast gently for around 5 minutes.
Add the dried chillies and turmeric and continue stirring and roasting for 2 – 3 minutes until the chillies darken.
Remove spices to a plate. When they have cooled, grind them as finely as possible. Store in an airtight container.
Other Sambar Powder Recipes
To demonstrate the diversity of Sambar Powders, I have included the following. Ratios are to personal preference – you can use the previous recipe quantities as a guide.
Madras Sambar Powder
just under 0.5 cup urad dal
0.25 cup channa dal
0.25 cup toor dal
0.5 cup coriander seeds
half a handful red chilies
0.75 tspn cumin seeds
0.75 tspn black mustard seeds
1 tspn fenugreek seeds
1 tspn black pepper corns
1 handful curry leaves
2 tsp Grated coconut
Roast all of the ingredients separately and grind into a powder.
Goan Sambar Powder
Kerala Sambar Powders and Pastes
To make sambar paste you blend the ingredients and add fried/toasted coconut. Since the quantity will be small, you will need to add water to get a smooth paste. Otherwise, to get a paste from the fresh powder, you roast the ingredients in little oil and grind with water to get a smooth paste!..this also tastes yummy!
Parsi Sambar Powder
source: My Bombay Kitchen
3/4 cup cayenne pepper
2 Tblspn salt
1 Tblspn ground turmeric
1.5 tspn asafoetida powder
0.5 cup fenugreek seeds
2 Tbspn black mustard seeds
1 tspn black peppercorns
1 tspn broken star anise pods
1 tspn whole cloves
1-2 stick cinnamon
1 Tbspn Indian sesame oil or ghee or peanut oil
Grind the fenugreek, mustard seeds, pepper corns, star anise, cloves and cinnamon to a fine powder. Add cayenne pepper, salt, turmeric and asafoetida.
Heat the oil until it starts to shimmer. Make a well in the middle of the spice mixture and pour in the hot oil. Keep mixing with a spoon until the oil is completely incorporated and the mixture loses its powdery look. Store in a cool dark place.
A Simple Sambar Recipe
There are millions of sambar recipes, just search the internet, and here is a simple one, if you wish to try one. For a more traditional recipes see here.
Sambars are often served as part of a meal with a number of Indian dishes, but can also be served on its own with rice, naan or other Indian bread, maybe with a small salad containing cucumber, tomato and raw onion, for a simple but great lunch.
125 g Toor dal
1 tspn ghee
knob of tamarind to make tamarind water/paste
juice of 1 lime or 1/2 lemon
small lump of jaggery – about 0.5 size of a walnut
1 – 2 chopped onions
other cooked or semi cooked vegetables (optional)
2 tspn black mustard seeds
6 or more curry leaves
pinch asafoetida powder
coriander (cilantro) leaves
4 tspn sambar powder
Cook Toor dal in 0.75 litre water with turmeric and ghee until cooked and quite soft. For me this takes up to an hour if I have presoaked the toor dal overnight.
Add chopped onions and any other cooked or semi-cooked vegetables.
Add tamarind water or lime juice with salt, jaggery and chopped tomato.
Add 4 tspns of sambar powder. Cook over low flame for 10 minutes.
Separately fry mustard seeds, and curry leaves in additional ghee and add with pinch asafoetida.
Pour the tadka into the lentils, mix and sprinkle with coriander leaves.