Wednesday 22 August 2012

Sambhar/ Sambar - Spicy South Indian Vegetable Stew

I talk very often about my mum on this blog. That's because, to me, she's an amazing woman, and one of the unsung heroes of the world. My mum, to me, is my role model in many ways. Not because she did great things or saved the world, but just the way she is. She was one of the first generation of Indian women to work outside the home, and claim their independence, but at the same time, her sisters and her looked after their parents. They worked all hours at incredibly demanding jobs, but also found the time to come back home and work just as hard in their own homes. My mum had so many demands on her time - her parents, siblings, children and husband, relatives, friends, students, grandchildren... the list was and is neverending! Yet she balanced everything so well, with a smile and an ocasional snap...  but never complaining (well, perhaps the odd grumble or two...) never fazed by the endless craziness of her life. 

And today, when she should be retired and sitting down with a cup of tea, she still has so much to do, including looking after her elderly parents and grandchildren. Yes, my mum has a work ethic to be proud of, and one that ocasionally makes me ashamed to have had it so easy in my life too. But also, at the same time, she inspires me to go out and do the best that I can. She encouraged me all through my academic career, supported me financially and emotionally and now she encourages my cooking career, because its what I love doing. Though she never says it out loud, I know that she loves me, and that she's proud of me, and this has always spurred me on to be that little bit better, every day of my life. She's truly a hero.

Despite my mum's 5 AM - 11 PM schedule, she always made sure that we had a hot breakfast, lunch and dinner. Its something I have strived to do with Aditi (well, maybe not that hot breakfast, I am not so self sacrificing of my sleep) but I always make sure that we have a home cooked dinner at home most days.

Vegetable for Sambhar

This classic South Indian sambhar (or sambar, as its sometimes called) was one of my mum's standby dishes for those days she knew that she wouldn't be able to make a full dinner. This deliciously spicy, tangy stew is packed full of fresh vegetables and is a cinch to make while rushing around doing myriad other things. I love its simplicity, and the fact that it can be eaten with just a light accompaniment of rice and pappadums. For me, sambhar is 'mama food' or comfort food... after all, what can be more comforting than a bowl of stew served over rice? Just a different kind of stew, that's all.

I make my own sambhar masala or spice mix for this dish, and I will be posting up that recipe shortly, but I will certainly admit that store bought masalas work very well. If I am out of my homemade mix, I use Everest or MDH brand masalas, that are available at any ethnic grocers (I get mine at EZee Mart in Garneau) and they taste pretty good too. I also love using fresh, seasonal vegetables in sambar. The recipe I use today has zucchini or courgettes from my garden, tomatoes from my neighbour's garden, aubergines, onions and cauliflowers from ther farmer's markets, and potatoes that Kay grew in the neighbour's yard. 

I also love to keep the vegetables fresh and tender, with a bite to them, and not overcook them like a lot of the sambhars that we get here in restaurants. Sambhars are traditionally a breakfast stew, and are eaten with idlis, vadas and dosas and accompanied by coconut chutney. But its a versatile stew, and can easily be served as a side dish or a light supper on its own. My mum, for example, made it for dinner, and we would have the leftovers for breakfast the next day. 

This sambhar turned out exceptionally well. My cousin Crystal, who is visiting me from India right now (she's moving to Victoria to take up a scholarship studying for a PhD in microbiology, by the way... can you tell that I am really proud of her?) actually said that this sambhar was better than her mum's! Better.Than. Her.Mum's!!! Having tasted her mum's cooking... I was floating at that compliment, seriously, this sambhar must have been really good to be better than an Indian's amma's dish :) I hope you enjoy it too.

Sambhar/ Sambar - Spicy South Indian Vegetable Stew

The prep for this dish was all made using my new Falcon Enamelware prep set. And as a plus, they take the cutest pictures too. I'll be doing a full review of this beautiful and versatile set soon, and to my delight, Falcon are going to be soon shipping to Canada. Watch out for it!


1 cup yellow split peas (tuvar/ toor dal)
4 cups water + 2 – 3 cups extra 
2 medium potatoes, cubed 
1 large zucchini, cubed
1 large aubergine, cubed
1 large onion, chopped into large dice
½ head of cauliflower, broken into florets
1 tomato, chopped
2 tablespoons sambhar masala (spice mix)
½ teaspoon concentrated tamarind paste (or use 1 extra tomato, chopped)
½ teaspoon (or to taste) hot cayenne pepper or chilli powder
Salt to taste
Large handful  fresh cilantro, to garnish, if desired

For the tempering (tarka/ tadka/ phon)

1 tablespoon unscented oil
2 sprigs curry leaves, picked
1 teaspoon brown or yellow mustard seeds
2 cloves garlic, smashed
2 whole long, mild red chillies


Wash the split peas, and place in a large pot. Cover with 4 cups cold water. Bring to a boil and boil hard for five minutes, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. Turn down the heat and simmer for 30 – 45 minutes, until they are tender and crush easily with the back of a fork. Take off the heat and let cool for a few minutes. 

Boil the potatoes until just tender, but not cooked all the way through, about 7 minutes. 

Transfer the cooked split peas along with any remaining water to another large pot, and add the zucchini, aubergine, chopped onion, cauliflower and tomato, along with the boiled potatoes. 

Stir in the sambhar masala, tamarind paste, if using and the cayenne pepper. Add the extra 2 – 3 cups water, depending on how thick you like your sambhar. Season with a little salt.

Stir again, then cover and simmer for 15 – 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are all tender, but with a bite to them.

Taste and add more salt to your taste, adjusting the seasoning until the sambhar is well flavoured.

Take off the heat, while you prepare the tempering.

To make the tadka, or tempering, heat the oil in a pan. Add the currey leaves, mustard seeds, garlic and red chillies, and fry quickly until the seeds start to pop. Pour the whole lot into the sambar, and stir.
Stir in the fresh cilantro, just before serving, if desired.

Sambhar/ Sambar - Spicy South Indian 
Vegetable Stew


  1. I can see how nutritious this must be - and how spicy! Age has changed my perky palate, but it LOOKS STUNNING.

    1. Thanks Valerie. Its defnitely comfort food for me. And yes, the vegetables make it pretty good for you too.

  2. Replies
    1. You'll have to come by and try some mate :)

  3. And indeeed it is very fantastic :)

    1. Haha, Crys, you made my day when you said its better than your mums :)

  4. very nice and healthy sambar...

  5. Living in Chennai I have had sambar more often than not! This looks great, its inordinately on my lunch menu for tomorrow.

    1. Haha, Swati. Thanks for the compliment... and enjoy your lunch too.

  6. Something similar to this is absolutely one of my standby dishes these days, although yours does look more delicious than mine. I'm looking forward to seeing your version of sambhar masala. (Actually, you've reminded me that I haven't had a hot breakfast for at least a year - I've got to treat myself soon.)

    1. Haha, Phil. I rarely, if ever, have hot breakfasts any more... especially the Indian kind. That said, I made an effort to make more hot stuff when my cousin was here, and I am beginning to rediscover a taste for it. I need to get my mum to come and visit, and then I'll get a hot brekkie every day :)

  7. Moms are the best! It's great to have them as our role models.

    This stew sounds delicious and if it's better than her mom's then it must be good!

    1. Stephanie, yes, absolutely. My mum is a darling, I just wish I got to see her more often :( And yes, this sambar is rather good... and the fresh veggies make it so nutritious.

  8. It just so happens I have a sambhar masala made (and therefore that should be used before the spices get too stale), so I think I think of finding this recipe as a sign! :) It looks wonderful....

  9. I'm looking for a good recipe for Sambhar Masala. Any thoughts?


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