Sambar Stew (Archive)



Ok. Stew. I’m going to skip the “omg it’s almost winter, the season for tummy warming stew recipes to savor while you light a fire, cozy up to your flanneled SO Chad/Tammy and his/her adorable rescue mutt, and watch the snow fall outside your window” recipe preamble. It’s cold and dark outside and innumerable leaves have decided to die in my gutters and driveway. The season can shove a hot coal up its ass.

So, story time: as a child, instead of smelling like dirt, peanut butter, or some mix of elmer’s glue and crayon (like most kids), I smelled of curry spices. All the time. It started with a diet of raita and naan as a wee babe, and quickly progressed to feeds of bhel puri and pav bhaji as my teeth and spice tolerance collectively grew. My family incessently cooked chole, briyani, korma, pakoras, chana, and a litany of fragrant dishes that lingered like raw garlic. The house reeked, our clothes reeked, and my bagel-bite toting friends made sure I knew that I reeked of last night’s vinadloo.

Moral of that story: What? No. This is about food, not morals. I. Love. Indian. Food. Especially South Indian food. Nary a day goes by that I don’t whine about my need for Gokul or Chopaati.

Why South Indian? Dumb question. Not only is every dish a perfect blend of oily, pungent, spicy, sweet, sour, creamy, and absolutely fierce flavor, but it’s also all vegetarian (and generously vegan). Copious amounts of tamarind, chili, and coconut chutneys. Impressive quantities of oil and salt. Fresh, fresh, fresh. Fresh lemon wedges / juice, cilantro, and onion atop everything. Talk about a wet dream.

(Mysore) masala dosa, one of my favorites, is normally accompanied by sambar stew – a mix of sambar powder, tamarind, veggies, lentils, and other tasty stuff. You grab some crispy dosa, smear coconut chutney on it, and dip it in the stew. Grilled cheese and tomato soup can go live in the 9th circle of hell. Dosa and sambar is that good.

I prepared my own sambar powder mixture and then sambar stew. The result, after a few tweaks, was exquisite. But what about the dosa? Well, I’ve tried my hand at making dosa from scratch. Like inexperienced sex, it’s laborious, confusing, and always comes out limp. So I’ve moved on to sambar stew; its thick, creamy texture and comfortingly complex flavor make it the perfect dish to eat while you curse the leaves for clogging your gutters.

Sambar Stew

Serves 4-6 people

Stew Base

  • 8 c water
  • 1.5 c toor dal (lentils)
  • 2/3 c okra
  • 2/3 c carrot
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 3 tbs sambar powder
  • 2 tsp tamarind concentrate 
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp sugar (coconut palm, brown, white…your choice)
  • ½ tsp tumeric
  • Pinch of asafoetida (hing)

Fry Mix

  • ½ yellow or white onion
  • ¼ c dried and shredded coconut, unsweetened
  • 5 dried red chilis
  • 3-4 tbs coconut or palm oil
  • 1.5 tsp mustard seeds
  • ½ tsp fenugreek seeds

Add the water, toor dal, and turmeric to a large soup pot. Bring to a boil and then cook on medium heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. While the dal is doing its thing, chop the carrot and okra into ½ inch chunks. Roughly chop / hack at the tomato.

Now add the tomato, tamarind concentrate, sambar powder, salt, and sugar. Turn the heat to low and let simmer for another 20 minutes. Add the carrot and okra and simmer for another 15 minutes (jesus, I know, enough with the simmering). Check the texture of lentils every so often; they may be finicky and need more time to become tender.

While the stew is coming together, heat the oil in a frying pan on medium heat. Slice the onion into thin crescents. Throw the onion, shredded coconut, chilis, mustard seed, and fenugreek seeds in the frying pan and let sizzle for a couple minutes. Then cook on low heat for about 45 minutes, letting everything toast and caramelize.

Once the lentil mixture is tender and the onion mixture is toasty, add the fried mix and a pinch of hing powder to the soup pot. Stir and cook for 3 more minutes on medium heat. The end. Nourishing grub sits before you, the smoky essence of cumin and hing perfumes your hair, and coworkers will wistfully eye your lunch tomorrow while they gum plasticky lean cuisines and michelina’s.

Notes & Tips

  1. In addition to carrot and okra (or instead of), use eggplant, a variety of squash, indian bitter melon.
  2. I use frozen, pre-sliced okra. It’s convenient.
  3. More water may be needed as the lentils cook – toor dal has an amazing ability to soak up way more water than you expect.
  4. I will publish my sambar powder recipe in a separate post. I somehow misplaced it, and until I work up the motivation to find the scrap paper I wrote it on, it’s not getting found.
  5. An infinite number of varying sambar powder recipes exist. Play around with the measurements and make your own!
  6. You can find already made sambar powder in Indian and Asian grocery stores. You lazy fuck.

***Originally posted 11/2014***

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