Once you are experienced at cooking sambar, it is quite easy. However, while mastering the skill it can be confusing. Here is some advice on making sambar, and particularly on cooking the vegetables for sambar.
The advice is based on my experience and the writings of S. Meenakshi Ammal who wrote the Cook and See series of books on traditional South Indian cooking.
Advice on Cooking Sambar
First, recognise up front that a good sambar will take couple of hours of elapsed time to cook. No shortcuts for a good sambar. But not all of that time is prep work or stirring. For much of it, the dal or the vegetables are cooking joyfully.
Don’t get confused by the plethora of sambar recipes available on the net or in books. Each region has its own style. Each household has its own recipes. You will find a lot of variation.
Next, make sure that you cook the toor dal well. This means until it is very soft and melting into the liquid. In the kitchen this takes about 45 mins – 70 mins depending on the age/dryness of the toor dal. A pressure cooker makes shorter work of it.
Sambar is of a soupy consistency, it is true, thin but not too thin, with a gorgeous flowing unctuousness to every spoonful that comes from the mushy toor dal.
Cooking Vegetables for Sambar
Now, on to the cooking of vegetables. It is best to do this separately and add to the dal when they are cooked. Here is how:
Prepare about 1.5 cups chopped vegetables. Opinions vary as to whether you can mix vegetables or use only one type in your sambar. Meenakshi Ammal, the doyen of South Indian Cooking, says to choose one. You can choose what makes sense for you. Select from drumstick, eggplant, okra, chow chow, carrot, pumpkin, beans, onions. Experiment with others too, whatever is at hand, but you may have to adjust cooking times accordingly.
Dice 1 or 2 medium tomatoes.
Now, heat a saucepan on the stove. Add some ghee or Indian sesame oil. Recipes vary in the amount recommended. You can use as little as 3 tspns and as much as 3 Tblspns! Add some broken dried red chillies (2 or 3 for me, up to 10 for you!), 1/2 tspn black mustard seed, 1/2 tspn fenugreek seeds, pinch asafoetida. Cook until colour changes (but do not allow to burn). Add a couple of slit, green chillies, a branch of curry leaves.
Add your diced tomatoes and stir for a few moments. Now add 1 – 2 Tblspn tamarind pulp and half cup water.
Add your prepared vegetables, stir, cover and cook on medium-low heat until cooked.
Finally, mash your cooked toor dal and add to the vegetable sambar. Best to simmer on very low for 5 minutes to meld flavours. You can thicken it with a little besan (chickpea flour) if you wish. Garnish with coriander roots and leaves and curry leaves.
Blanching vegetables before cooking
Amma suggests that some vegetables are better par-cooked for a few minutes before adding to the tamarind liquid for cooking. You can either saute them or boil in water. I prefer sauteing where that makes sense. Onions should be sauteed. The following can be sauteed or boiled: – eggplant, okra, french beans, runner beans, cluster beans. For eggplant, I like to saute it with the spices before adding the tomatoes.
Vegetables best cooked without tamarind
Amma suggest that you can cook your choice of amaranth stems, radish, runner beans, cluster beans and pumpkin in some salted water, I assume to better preserve the colours rather than in the tamarind mixture. In this case, prepare the tamarind mixture as above, then add your cooked vegetables to it, then add the toor dal as above.
Meenakshi Ammal’s advice for Preparing Bitter Gourd for Pitlai, Koottu, Poriyal and mildly sour Kuzhambu
Meenakshi Ammal, author of the wonderful Cook and See series of books, has some advice about preparing bitter gourd for Kuzhambu and lentil dishes.
Cook the bitter gourd separately and only then add to the tamarind water. The amount of tamarind can be reduced substantially due to the flavour of bitter gourd. If you wish to reduce the sourness of the gourd, half cook in water, strain, then add to thick tamarind water that has been heated with salt and turmeric. Cook a little and add a little jaggery. Cook again until tamarind water is absorbed.
You can see that Amma does present several choices for some of the vegetables. For example, runner beans can either be cooked as normal in the tamarind mixture, or blanched before cooking in the tamarind mixture, or cooked separately and only added to the tamarind mixture after being cooked.
My recommendation is to choose the method that works for you, in your kitchen, with what you have at hand, and your own taste preferences.
After all, cooking is finding that balance of following the tradition or recipe, working with the ingredients that are fresh, seasonal and at hand, and not spending a fortune on ingredients. Being healthy but not obsessive.
and remember: Everyone does it a bit differently. Enjoy!
Advice from a Friend
My Foodie Soul Sister Srivalli sent the following examples of how her mother and herself cook vegetables for sambar. It is a great example of the variation in methods. Some of her advice contradicts Meenakshi Ammal’s but that is Ok too.
“Reading your post, made me think about the procedure I follow and also remembered how my mom used to cook in pan years back. She shifted to pressure cooker these days for cooking toor dal.
So with respect to vegetables, this is what I do. The vegetables that we use for a sambar are as follows
Carrot and Beans
Indian Broad Beans
Cluster Beans are never added to a sambar (as cluster beans have that bitter taste) to my knowledge and same goes to Potatoes, though I know some add potatoes.
Vegetables like Eggplant, can be added to the pan after onions are sauteed. Again in this there are couple of problems. The sourness if it comes from tamarind, it’s ok for the tomatoes to be pulpy, else you might have to get them soft and then add these vegetables.
With Okra, we always saute them separately, for the sliminess to leave and it becomes crispy, before being add to the pan.
Vegetables like Radish, Chayote pumpkin etc can be added to the dal at the final stage and cooked. (Meaning I pressure cook my toor dal for 4 whistles, the last one whistle will be with the vegetables).
Drum Stick is always scalded separately.
The vegetables that can be mixed together are
- Drumstick, Eggplant, Beans and Carrot.
Some times my Mom adds Indian Broad Beans like as in two or three pieces.
Okra is never mixed with any other vegetable.
Radish can also be mixed, however since it comes with a strong aroma by itself, most don’t. However I have eaten sambar with Radish, carrot and beans.
I have seen people using Bitter gourd to the sambar, though it’s treated to remove it’s bitterness before being added.
All the above have come into practice because I use pressure cooker. We can’t afford to spend so much time cooking a sambar..:)
However I remember my Mom cooking Sambar in her pot, by first boiling toor dal, when it turns soft, she used to add vegetables. Once the vegetables are done, then goes in the tomatoes and tamarind extract.
Finally the tempering is done in a smaller pan and poured over the boiling sambar.”
- Seasoned Sambar, Method One
- Seasoned Sambar, Method Two
- Seasoned Sambar, Method Three
- On cooking Vegetables for Sambar and here
- On the making of Sambar Powder
- Sambar Powders and a Simple Sambar
- More on Cooking Sambar