For lovers of India and/or Indian food, it can take some time to puzzle out what is what. It is a complex and intricate cuisine. One of the questions people often ask is about the difference between rasam and sambar and how to differentiate between them. Outside of India we don’t have many liquid dishes besides soups, so it is natural to have questions about the distinction between the more liquid dishes of India.
Sambar and Rasam
Toor dal, tamarind, tomatoes and spices – these form the basis of rasam and sambar. Yet very different dishes result.
What is Sambar?
Fiery and with a thick creaminess, sambar is an essential dish and often the first course in any South Indian meal.
Sambar is made with toor dal, vegetables, tamarind and spices. It is thicker, 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 known as red lentils or red gram dal in Indian recipes.)
I adore sambar. There are no two ways around it. It is a dish of choice, and when I visit my most fav Indian restaurant, I will always order a dish of sambar and idli. As homely as it is, it is comforting, flavoursome, awesome.
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.
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.
Three things define a sambar, and it is these that make it different to other dal dishes.
- 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 that contains 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?
Adding to the confusion, a Kuzhambu is also, strictly speaking, a sambar, and many writers, even my beloved Meenakshi Ammal, classes Kuzhambus as types of sambars. I like to differentiate between them, to keep things very clear. Kuzhambus do not have the dal component. A kuzhambu is really a gravy with vegetables or vatral. The consistency is generally thinner than a sambar, but not very thin like a rasam. The consistency is preferably `flowing’, not thick. A general rule is, if it doesn’t have the sambar spices and it doesn’t contain toor or other dal. It generally contains tamarind but there are exceptions, eg Mor (Buttermilk or yoghurt) Kuzhambu. You can read more about the distinction here.
What is Rasam?
It is difficult to define a rasam. As soon as you try you will find examples that break those rules. Rasam is best described as a spicy broth that can be eaten over rice, used to moisten drier curries or eaten like a soup. It sometimes has toor dal – but not every time – and tomatoes as a base – but not every time. It is strong on coriander and pepper and chillies – but not every time.
Rasam means juice, and in this case, it refers to the juice of the tamarind, on which a rasam is based – but not every time.
For example, Pepper Rasam is made without rasam powder. Gottu Rasam is made without toor dal. Beautiful Lemon Rasam is made without tamarind. And to top it all, Paneer Rasam is made without paneer, is served exclusively at weddings, and is made of rose petals.
Rasam can be made without dal, or with just a little dal – anywhere from 1 tspn to a half of a cup. Generally, toor dal is used, and it has this in common with Sambar. It is a thin, spicy broth often made with the inclusion of tomatoes. It rarely includes other vegetables. The simplest form is made with just water and spices. I love to make it with the water used for cooking dal, taking a couple of cups of the water from the top of the dal and make rasam from it.
Traditionally, it was considered that some of the distinctive flavour of the rasam came from the alloy of the vessel in which it was prepared. Iyam, it was called. But iyam vessels are not used these days as they contained lead.
Poritha Rasam is a variant of rasam that does not contain any souring agent such as tamarind or lime juice. Often coconut and perhaps tomatoes are included. However, Meenakshi Ammal‘s version of Poritha Rasam is made without either, using toor dal, cumin and black pepper corns with a tadka of curry leaves. Note the absence of mustard seeds and chilli in her recipe.
Mysore Rasam, named after that beautiful city, is another variation on rasam with a particular composition:
- The base of the rasam is toor dal.
- It uses a particular mix of spices – coriander seed, dried red chillies, and pepper corns. Bengal gram is also included in its spice mix.
- Usually, but not always, coconut is included in the rasam. You will see that the two recipes for Mysore Rasam with Lime Juice do not contain coconut.
- The rasam is thicker than many of the more watery rasam varieties.
The spices used in rasam and sambar differ, although many people will use sambar powder and rasam powder interchangeably.
Rasam and Sambar Recipes
Both dishes are eaten daily in households in Tamil Nadu, and recipes abound. Each household will declare their recipes the absolute best! And of course, they are right.
I hope that helps.