Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sambar (Vegetable Stew)

My maternal grandmother Mummi made many vegan dishes when my mom was young, including sambar - a thick, fiber-rich, stew that is best served with a ladle. Upon reaching her mid-30s, she gave up meat all together, but continued to cook mutton cutlets, chicken stew, and other meat dishes that most of Kerala’s Syrian Christians crave to stave off an in-home riot. 

Toor dhal cooked until you can mash it with the back of a spoon

Mummi’s journal contains many tips on good nutrition (including the importance of avoiding a high protein diet after the age of 40). So I assumed that she changed her eating habits for health reasons. But according to my mom, my grandmother cut out meat with the hopes of securing a prosperous future for her children. That came as no surprise. My mom is constantly negotiating with a higher power.  

Potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and green beans roughly chopped for sambar

Mummi’s love of meat-free dishes was also handed down to my mom. As a child, I loved to watch her douse lentils with water and slice up vegetables for sambar and other vegetarian dishes that Mummi once spooned on her plate. 

Adding sambar powder to vegetables and lentils before they are simmered


Serves 4 to 6

Sambar is a versatile vegan dish. I like to include  tomatoes, green beans, and potatoes, but you can swap in other veggies, including those buried in your crisper. It’s traditionally served with idlis (sourdough buns), dosas (sourdough crepes),  urad vada (donut shaped fritters), or, more simply, a plate of piping hot parboiled rice.


1/2 cup toor dhal (pigeon peas)
5 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup roughly chopped onions
1/2 cup roughly chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup roughly chopped potatoes
1/2 cup chopped green beans
1 tablespoon sambar powder
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon tamarind concentrate
1 1/2 teaspoons canola or olive oil
1/8 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
10 curry leaves
1 dried red chili (optional)


Place the dhal in a medium sized sauce pan. Cover it with water and stir to remove excess starch. Drain and repeat until the water becomes clear. Slowly drain the water. 

Add 3 1/2 cups of water to the rinsed dhal.

Bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium low, and cook until the dhal can be easily mashed with the back of a spoon (about an hour and a half). Most of the water will have evaporated.  

Add 2 cups of water, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and beans to the cooked dhal. Stir. 

Stir in the sambar powder and salt. Cook until the vegetables  just start to soften, about 15 minutes.

Place the tamarind concentrate in a small bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of liquid from the cooked dhal to the tamarind and stir to dilute it

Pour the diluted tamarind back into the dhal mixture. Cook until the vegetable become knife tender, about 10 minutes.

Place the oil in a small skillet over medium low heat. Add the brown mustard seeds. When they begin to pop, add the curry leaves and dried red chili. Cook for 1 minute. 

Stir the flavored oil into the dhal mixture. 

Sambar served with a ladle made from a coconut shell
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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Cooking with Tamarind

Grid Thekkady

The last time I was in India, my Aunt Iysha, cousin Indu, and I traveled to the Western Ghats, a mountainous region on the west coast of Kerala, in search of cardamom. I had eaten and cooked with the spice plenty of times, but I had never seen it growing. My grandfathers on both sides had managed cardamom estates. They passed away before I was born, and I hoped to envision the land they had once owned.
On the second day of our excursion, we toured a spice garden in Kumily with vanilla climbing skyward, fine-leafed papyrus, and rose-colored coffee beans (all pictured above). But it was the sprawling tamarind that enthralled me. The tree’s feathery foliage formed the perfect canopy for a  open air nap. Tubby pods dangled from it’s branches. I knew that the fruit hidden inside  offered a mouth-puckering bite.   
Tamarind tree

Purchasing Tamarind

Tamarind is an essential souring agent in Indian cuisine. It brings tang to tamarind chutney, the dark, slightly sweet sauce that often accompanies samosa. In Kerala, it is used to round out the complex flavors of sambar (vegetable stew).
Visit an Indian grocery store, and you’ll likely find tamarind sold in several forms. The whole dried pods have brown skin and look like jumbo beans. They’re often stocked in the produce section. Compressed tamarind, which contains the pulp and seeds, is sold in blocks. I prefer to use tamarind paste or concentrate. It has the most intense flavor.
Tamarind paste_edited-1

Cooking with Tamarind

Tamarind paste has a thick, tacky consistency. It should be diluted with water or another liquid before being combined with other ingredients. When cooking sambar, I like to thin it with liquid from the dish, as shown below. 
Diluting tamarind paste
Diluting tamarind paste2
Diluting tamarind paste3
Diluted tamarind paste
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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sambar Podi (Sambar Powder)

Homemade Sambar Powder

In February, I used the last of my mom’s homemade sambar powder to make a pot of sambar, which is my all-time favorite Indian dish. (Sorry Spicy Fried Beef, Mild Fish Curry, and Chicken Stew!) For those of you who have never tasted it, sambar is a heavily spiced stew made with lentils and vegetables. It takes center stage when idlis (sourdough buns) or dosas (sourdough crepes) are served. I love to eat it with a plate of steaming hot rice and crispy pappadam.

Within a week of running out of the powder, my mom sent me another bottleful. I measured out a tablespoon to make another batch of sambar. Surprisingly, it turned out to be hotter that I had expected. When I mentioned the difference to my mom, she told me that she had finally started purchasing pre-made sambar powder from an international grocery store. Clearly, it was time for me to take on the task of producing the potent mixture!
Making Homemade Sambar Powder

As it turns out, the process requires more patience than skill. There’s a lot of roasting (and stirring) of spices and some grinding, of course. But if you ask me, it’s well worth the effort!
Grinding Spices for Homemade Sambar Powder


Makes 1/2 cup


1/2 cup coriander
1/4 cup channa dhal
10 dried red chilies
1½ tablespoons fenugreek
1 teaspoon asafetida
½ teaspoon turmeric


Heat a heavy-bottomed steel or cast iron skillet on medium low heat. Pour the coriander seeds into the skillet. Cook, stirring constantly, until a seed easily crumbles when pressed between your fingers (about 10 to 15 minutes). 
Pour the coriander seeds into a medium sized bowl to cool.
Add the channa dhal to the skillet. Cook, constantly stirring, until the dhal become crunchy when you pop a few into your mouth (about 10 minutes). 
Pour the dhal into the bowl to cool.
Add the fenugreek seeds to the skillet. Cook, constantly stirring, until the seeds turn one shade darker (about 10 minutes). 
Pour the fenugreek seeds into the bowl to cool.
Place the dried red peppers into the skillet. Cook, constantly stirring, until the peppers release a pumpkin-like aroma (5 to 7 minutes). 
Pour the cooked peppers into the bowl to cool.
Once the roasted spices have cooled, transfer them to a blender. 

Add the asafetida and turmeric. Grind the ingredients until they become powdered.
Transfer 1/3 of the mixture to a spice grinder and process until it becomes a fine powder.
Repeat with the rest of the spice mix. 
Store in an air tight glass jar.
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