Indian Essentials: What is the difference between Sambar, Kuzhambu and Kootu?

Is a sambar a kuzhambu, or a kuzhambu a sambar? Where does a Kootu fit in? And then there is Masiyal and Pitlai. These are the big questions that keep me awake at night.

Traditional Indian cuisine is an ancient one, eons old, with superb flavour and texture combinations, exquisitely evident in the soupy dishes of sambar and kuzhambu. Infinite varieties of both dishes exist, emerging from very subtle cooking differences (eg whether the vegetables are added before the tamarind or after), on the time of the meal, on the region, the village, the time of year, the festival, the vegetable used, or the spices used, whether coconut is added, and so on.

In general you can say that sambar has a base of red gram dal (toor dal), and kuzhambu does not use lentils as a base. A kuzhambu may use a small amount of toor dal ground in a spice paste, but not generally as a key ingredient.

All kuzhambus and sambars contain fenugreek but it is considered the defining spice for a kuzhambu, because it pairs so well with the sour taste of tamarind.

Sambar | Heat in The Kitchen

What is Sambar?

Sambar is made with toor dal, (red gram dal) vegetables, tamarind and specific spices. It is has a thicker consistency, cooked till the dal is very mushy. The texture is very smooth, almost creamy from the mushy toor dal. (Note that toor/tuvar dal is also called red lentils in many recipes but is not to be confused with masoor dal which is commonly called red lentils in some other countries..)

Three things define a sambar, and it is these that make it different to other lentil based or soupy South Indian dishes.

  • First, the lentils used.  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.
  • The third is that it is made with tamarind as the souring agent

Kuzhambu | Heat in The Kitchen

Sambar Recipes

Kuzhambu (Kozhambu, Kulambu)

A Kuzhambu can be thin, like a broth, or thicker like a gravy. It can contain vegetables, or not, coconut or not, and beautiful dried lentil balls (vadagam) or dried vegetables (vathal) or not. It is laden with spices and tamarind, and may be quite spicy.

A kuzhambu can be said to be a type of gravy and generally contains vegetables. The consistency is often thinner than a sambar, but not very thin like a rasam. There are exceptions to this, but it is a general rule. The consistency can be described as flowing  but not thick. The spices generally differ from sambar spices. It generally contains tamarind but there are exceptions, eg Mor Kuzhambu which is made with a yoghurt base. And it usually does not contain toor dal or other dal as a major ingredient.

The main ingredient – vegetable, yoghurt, vatral, tamarind etc – is predominant and hence the name of the main ingredient is added to kuzhambu. If it is predominantly tamarind based, it is Puli Kuzhambu. If it has vatral instead of veggies, it is Vatral Kuzhambu. If it is a vegetable, onions, garlic, coconut or vathal, this is also fried, sauteed or toasted before adding to the kuzhambu, which gives an extra punch to the dish.

As it is a liquid dish it is mixed with rice before eating, and is generally accompanied by a separate, dry vegetable dish, some chutney and pickles..

Kuzhambu Recipes

Poritha Kuzhambu

Poritha kuzhambu  or Poricha kuzhambu is one variety of kuzhambu contains coconut in its ground spice mix, and this is the most defining characteristic of a Poritha Kuzhambu. It can also contain tamarind (but not always) and  dal – either green gram dal or toor dal.

If its a speciality Kuzhambu, such as  Coconut Poritha Kuzhambu, then grated coconut (or other main ingredient) is fried along with the tempering ingredients and added to the dish.

Poritha Kuzhambu Recipes

Moar Kuzhambu

Moar (also called Mor, More or Moru) kuzhambu is a special variety of Kuzhambu. Moar indicates a certain sourness in a dish, and in Moar Kuzhambu it is provided (generally) by yoghurt. Normally kuzhambu contains no tamarind,  but there is one version of Moar Kuzhambu that mixes tamarind and yoghurt in equal amounts.

There are at least 100 different varieties of Moar Kuzhambu in Tamil Nadu. It varies from region to region.

Moar (Mor) Kuzhambu Recipes

Kuzhambu | Heat in The Kitchen

What about Kootu?

The differences between many Indian dishes are subtle – Kootu is also similar to sambar and kuzhambu.

Kootu (also spelt Koottu) varieties include Gothsu/Kothsu, Pitlai and Poritha Kootu.

Kootu is any vegetable cooked to a stew-like consistency with Mung Dal or Toor Dal, and blended with freshly ground mild spices. The amount of vegetables are more than in Kuzhambu or Sambar, up to a 1:1 ratio with the dal. The Kootu is also much thicker than Sambar, Kuzhambu or Rasam. Like Poricha Kuzhambu, Kootu often contains coconut (in fact, some places don’t distinguish between Kootu and Poricha Kuzhambu but there are small differences). Cumin is considered its defining spice. Sometimes pepper is used, but fenugreek is rarely used.

Most kootus are spiced with a coconut, cumin and red or green chillies in a paste – sometimes spices are kept to a minimum and just a coconut paste is used.  Many say that traditionally it does not have a souring ingredient, but since at least the 1950’s, probably before that, lemon juice or tamarind can be  included. The  dal used is normally mung dal.

Some say that Koottu does not use sambar powder, but Meenakshi Ammal, the expert of Tamil Brahmin cooking, has one Koottu recipe with sambar powder.

Koottu is eaten mixed with rice and a separate dry vegetable curry is not needed. Accompaniments are usually one or more of chapatti, thayir pachadi, thuvaiyal, pickle, appalam or vadam.

Poricha Kootu

Here are three common varieties of Koottu.

  • Poritha Kootu: A kootu made with urad dal and pepper is called Poritha Koottu. Urad dal, few red chillies, some cumin and fresh coconut are ground together, sometimes with black pepper. Mung Dal and the cut vegetables are cooked separately. Then, the ground paste, cooked vegetables and moong dhal are mixed and heated.
  • Araichivita Kootu: A kootu which has a freshly ground)masala in it; the word araichivita in Tamil literally translates to “the one which has been ground and poured.” The ground paste is a mixture of fried Urad or Toor Dal, cumin seeds , coriander, red chillies, black pepper, a piece of cinnamon which have been roasted, and coconut. The chopped vegetables and Toor Dal are cooked separately. Then, the vegetables and dal are combined with the ground paste . It can contain tamarind.
  • Moar Kootu: Kootu with yoghurt as its base and souring agent.
  • Puli Kootu: Contains tamarind.
  • Pitlai: Uses some basic vegetables and cooked in a coconut-based gravy with specific spices that have been fried in ghee. It sits close to Poritha Kuzhambu and Poritha Kootu, but the spice mix varies from these.
  • Kothsu/Gothsu : Generally contains roasted and mashed eggplant. When made with other vegetables it is often called a Baaji or Masiyal. Kothsu can contain toor dal, or not, and include tamarind (when toor dal is not included) or not (when toor dal is included). Kothsu is generally thin enough for a gravy with rice.
  • Masiyal: Can be made with toor dal or a mixture of toor dal and mung dal. It can contain tamarind and always includes lots of vegetables. However, there are no ground or powdered spices, only seasoning with a few selected spices – often those spices will include fenugreek.
  • Rasavangi: A dish close to Kootu and Pitlay, made with eggplant.

However, many other regional variations exist.

Kootu Recipes


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