How To Make South Indian Sambar

Sambar is a South Indian stew made with lentils and vegetables. It is comforting, super flavorful and a staple in many homes across India. It is best when paired with dosas, idlis, appams or rice, which are all the perfect vehicle to mop up this amazing stew. I cook it often, especially when I am missing home and need something that will feel like a warm hug. It reminds me of Sunday morning breakfasts with my family in Mumbai. 

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Lentil stew, Sambar

There are hundreds of variations of sambar, tamarind, tomato, drumsticks, coconut, and raw mango to name a few. But this version is a pretty good base to start off with and a version my mother makes to this day. There are some essential components that make a delicious sambar, so let’s go over them. 

The lentils

The most common lentils used to make a sambar are split yellow peas (toor dal) and red lentils, but sometimes split garbanzo peas (chana dal) are also used. Use them as a whole or do a combination as I did. However, I like to keep the ratio of 2:1. For example, 2 cups toor dal for 1 cup red lentils. 

The vegetables

This recipe for sambar uses tomatoes, potato, and eggplant because that is what I had on hand but drumsticks, chayote, green eggplant, green gourd, zucchini (not traditional), and pumpkin will work well too. Basically, anything super intense will work here. However, if you add okra, be mindful of cooking time as okra can thicken and add a slimy texture to the sambar if cooked too long. 

Sambar masala

This is one of the most important things to make a good sambar, in my honest opinion. Now you may not have a homemade mix like most South Asian homes, but there are good versions from brands that will do the trick. My favorite brands are Everest, MDH, and MTR to name a few. A good sambar masala consists of fragrant species such as chana dal, urad dal, curry leaves, mustard seeds, asafoetida, and turmeric powder, which make it extremely flavorful and potent. A tablespoon of sambar masala completely transforms the dish and adds an incredible depth to the end result. I highly recommend having some in your pantry. 

The tadka

While it might be tempting to skip this step. I plead with you. No, I beg you not to do so! A tadka with asafoetida, curry leaves, and red chilis wakes up the dish. It adds a zing of umami that would otherwise be lacking. Just do, your kitchen will smell amazing and you can enjoy an incredible flavor payout. 

Enjoy lentil stew as it is on a cold winter’s day like soup or with dosas, or hot idlis and you won’t be disappointed. This recipe yields quite a bit. Luckily, it freezes well, so portion the sambar into containers and store it in your freezer. Then defrost for a few minutes in the microwave for a few mins, transfer to a small pot, and reheat until bubbling. I also have other Indian recipes to choose from on the website. 

sambar lentil stew
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South Indian Sambar

A South Indian vegan lentil comforting and flavorful lentil stew made with vegetables and spices.
Prep Time30 mins
Cook Time45 mins
Servings:6

Ingredients

Sambar 

  • 1 cup toor dal (yellow split peas)
  • 3 tamarind pods or 1 Tbsp. tamarind paste 
  • 1/2 cup red lentils 
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp. mustard seeds 
  • 6 garlic cloves peeled and smashed 
  • 2 Thai green chilis, sliced 
  • 1 small onion thinly sliced
  • 5 fresh curry leaves 
  • 1 Tbsp. coriander powder 
  • 1 Tbsp. Kashmiri red chili powder 
  • 1 tsp. turmeric powder 
  • 1 large tomato chopped 
  • 1 small eggplant cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1 medium potato peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 2 Tbsp. sambar masala (like MDH or Everest)

Instructions

  • Add 1 cup toor dal (yellow split peas), ½ cup red lentils, 4 cups water to a pressure cooker, instant pot, or large dutch oven. Cook until the dal is soft, broken down and completely cooked, about 20 minutes in a pressure cooker or instant pot. Alternatively the dal will take about 1 hour in a dutch oven.
  • If using tamarind pods, add 3 tamarind pods to a small bowl and pour ½ cup hot water into it, soak for 15 minutes. Then use your hands to mash out pulp. Strain tamarind water, set aside until ready to use.
  • In a different large pot or dutch oven, heat ¼ cup vegetable oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add 1 tsp. mustard seeds, and cook until spluttering, about 10 seconds. Then add 6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed, 2 Thai green chilis, sliced and saute until garlic is fragrant and the edges begin to brown, 2 minutes. Now add 1 small onion, thinly sliced, 5 curry leaves and stir. Add 1 Tbsp. coriander powder, 1 Tbsp. Kashmiri red chili powder, 1 tsp. turmeric powder and stir to combine. Add 1 large tomato, chopped, 1 small eggplant, cut into 2-inch pieces, 1 medium potato, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces and stir to combine. Sprinkle 2 Tbsp. sambar masala (like MDH or Everest) and stir to combine.
  • Pour in cooked dal, 1 ½ cup water, and mix to combine. Bring to a boil, then turn to low and simmer until tomato is broken down, potatoes and eggplant are tender, about 25 minutes. Add tamarind water and stir to combine. Check for seasoning and adjust salt. Remove from heat and make tadka.

Tadka

  • Heat 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil in a small saucepan over medium-high. Add ¼ tsp. asafoetida or hing, 1 tsp. Kashmiri red chili powder, 5 curry leaves, 5 dried red chilis and cook until curry leaves splutter, 10 seconds. Remove from heat immediately and pour over sambar.
  • Garnish sambar with cilantro and serve immediately.

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