Indian Essentials: What is a Sambar?

Sambar is the quintessential dish from Tamil Nadu in South India

Chilli Leaf Sambar

In Indian food, there are many lentil and vegetable soupy dishes. It is easy to use terms generically. But in India there is a preciseness about food that is deeper than many Western cooks care to delve into. The challenge is to understand differences between Dish A and Dish B (insert any 2 names) which appear very similar to me but have very different names.

Confusingly, paradoxically, despite the preciseness of food/dish terminology, recipes for the dish will vary wildly from region to region, village to village, home to home. Different spices included, different vegetables included, coconut added or left out, and so forth.

Moringa Sambar | Drumstick LeavesSambars are a style of Indian wet dish, based on lentils – a sort of “soup”, eaten not as a separate course but together with the main elements of the meal and served over rice.  It contains Toor Dal and some spices, as well as one or two vegetables.

Three things define a sambar, and it is these that make it different to other dals.

  • First a sambar is made with toor/tuvar dal.
  • The second is the spice mix. The spices used in sambar will generally include fenugreek, chilli, curry leaves, black mustard seeds, turmeric, coriander powder. The spices may be added individually at different stages of cooking sambar, or may be ground and mixed together to make a sambar powder or paste, often used for convenience.
  • Thirdly, the base is usually one of tamarind. The exception is with buttermilk or yoghurt sambars. Did you know that tamarind, used so much in South Indian cooking, serves to preserve the vitamins of the vegetables cooked in it?

Basically there are four methods of preparing Sambar. Each method takes a slightly different taste. Any one method can be adopted to suit one’s preference and taste. Have a look at Method 1, Method 2, Method 3, and Method 4.

Vendakkai Sambar

Sambars are traditionally made with Toor Dal (also called Tuvar Dal, Red Dal or Red Gram Dal). The spice powder is important in a Sambar, and is specific to the sambar — Indian dishes are formulated around the spices and spice combinations, and the main ingredients, in this case lentils and a vegetable, are designed to match and carry the spices.

Read more about Sambars and their sibling, Kuzhambu dishes, in this post which explores their differences. Also read about Sambars and their cousin, Rasam.

You can find Sambar recipes here (they include Kuzhambu recipes) and there are lots of notes on how to make sambar here.

You will find a lot of great information in these posts:

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