October 7, 2012

Ammini Ramachandran’s Pacha Sambar - A Sambar (Spiced Vegetable & Lentil Curry) with Fresh Green Spices

T
his particular recipe and blog post was the result of a discussion Facebook! Its quite true that many blog posts here have been the culmination of very involved discussions on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve had with friends (many of them bloggers) about food.
Talking about sambhar in particular, I make 4 or 5 versions of it regularly though I have so far posted only one. The main reason for this being, that I never have the time to photograph most of my everyday cooking unless I plan ahead. In the past few years of blogging, one thing I have discovered is that trying to take photographs while your family is waiting to eat guarantees three things – bad photography, a very unhappy family and even unhappier and crabby self!
This whole thing started when I came across Saveur’s special collection of 150 classicrecipes from across the world to celebrate Saveur’s 150th issue. A couple of Indian recipes are there and I came acroos their recipe for Onion Sambhar which they describe as South Indian Onion Stew.
While I don’t think I have another description for that sambhar that’s all that better, I just felt that it didn’t begin to describe a dish that I have been brought up on and still cook every week. I mentioned this on Facebook and questioned the use of “chana dal” (Bengal gram lentils) as the choice of lentils in the Saveur recipe. 
Chana dal would never give you the texture and consistency desired in the liquid part/ gravy of a Sambhar. I have also never seen cumin seeds being used in Sambhar as it is the coriander seeds in it that contributes to the taste. That status message on Facebook was thebeginning of a discussion on sambhar that I never thought it would become!




 
Before I go further, I would like to clarify that I am not questioning the “authenticity” of the Sambhar  recipe in Saveur. In any part of the world, traditional recipes are cooked in slightly different ways and they would all be authentic in their own way.  However, for a particular recipe, even with the variations, there would certain ingredients or techniques which identify it as being what it is. And that is what I was wondering about, belonging to and growing up in a part of India where Sambhar is the norm.
In the course of the discussion, I came away with information about Sambar that I never knew and also a couple of new recipes. One was a recipe for a “Pacha Sambhar” from Ammini Ramachandran who writes at Pepper Trail, about food from the South Indian state of Kerala. I consider myself quite honoured have known her for a little while now. She is quite knowledgeable about food from our home state, and not just recipes but a lot of the history behind them.
This recipe is in her book “Greens, Grains And Grated Coconuts” and Ammini was kind enough to send me the recipe. When I looked at the ingredient list, it was quite unlike that of any Sambhar I had seen before. For one thing, there was no “masala” or spice mix that typically goes into a preparation of this sort. Then again, there was the use of fresh coriander and fenugreek leaves which is unusual in Kerala cuisine.



 

When I asked for the history behind this recipe, Ammini told me she got it from her cousin and also the story behind this and many of the slightly “unusual” recipes in their families. In Kerala, members of the Royal families and certain othercommunities followed (and still follow to some extent) a matrilineal system offamily and inheritance.
In most of these families the women rarely stepped into the kitchens and there were cooks to take care of the cooking. These families were also very generous and guests were always welcome and never turned away. This meant that the cooks would be required to cook up meals for guest at very short notice and they became experts at innovation, cooking with whatever they had on hand.
The result was unusual recipes which were not standard but varied from kitchen and each family being handed down recipes which were unique to that particular family.



 

Ammini’s Pacha Sambhar is one such recipe and I am reproducing it here with her kind permission. The photograph of the Sambhar at the beginning of this post doesn't do it any justice at all and the saying "Don't judge by appearances alone" holds.
It isn't easy to make a yellowish-brown "curry" look very pretty while trying to keep it "authetic" looking though I know there are people out there who can. 
While it didn’t taste like any Sambhar I have ever eaten, and perhaps more like a North Indian style dal (lentil curry), we did like it very much. What stood out were the fresh tones, from the “green” ingredients, the simple flavours and the comforting yet light feel of the Sambhar.
I made a couple of very minor changes. I used potatoes because I didn’t have taro (“Chembu” in Malayalam), but I feel taro would have perhaps tasted more authentic since it’s a vegetable traditionally used in Kerala. I also used coconut oil for the seasoning/ tempering, once again for a more Kerala-style taste.

Ammini's recipe calls for the use 4 tbsp of lemon juice as the souring agent in this sambhar. In India, what we ususally get in our markets are limes (not lemons) and these are very sour. So I used just 1 tbsp for my sambhar. I would suggest you use as much (or as less) as feel would suit your taste.



 

In Ammini’s own words, “Sambar is a staple curry of South India. It is always served with rice and often served for breakfast. Pacha (“green” in Malayalam) sambar is a version prepared only with fresh spices. In this curry, not only must the vegetables be fresh, most of the spices are also green (not dried). For tartness, many curries rely on tamarind; here, it comes from lemon juice.”

Pacha Sambar - A Sambar with Fresh Green Spices
(With permission from the author of Greens, Grains And Grated Coconuts)
 

Ingredients:  

1 cup tuvar dal
 1 medium russet potato or 3 taro, peeled and cubed
 2 medium tomatoes cubed
 Salt to taste
 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
 3/4 cup finely chopped cilantro leaves
 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh fenugreek leaves (preferred, if available or 1/2 tsp ground fenugreek)
 6 fresh green chilies (serrano or Thai), thinly sliced (less for a milder taste)
 4 tbsp lemon juice 

For seasoning and garnish: 

 2 tbsp vegetable oil (I used coconut oil)
 1 tsp mustard seeds
 1 dried red cayenne, serrano, or Thai chili, halved
 1/4 tsp asafetida powder
 20 to 25 fresh curry leaves

 

Method: 

Wash and clean the tuvar dal in several changes of water, until the water runs clear. If you are using oily tuvar dal, the oil must be washed off before starting to cook. Place the tuvar dal in a saucepan with two and a half cups of water and a half-teaspoon of turmeric powder. Bring it to a boil over medium heat, then turn down the heat, and cook for twenty-five to thirty minutes.
(As an alternative, you may use a pressure cooker to cook the dal, following the manufacturer’s directions. It will take about six to eight minutes to cook in a pressure cooker.) As the dal cooks, it should be fairly thick but still liquid; stir in another half-cup of water if it is too thick. Mash the cooked tuvar dal thoroughly with a spoon, and set it aside.
 Combine the potato (or taro), tomatoes, salt, turmeric, and two cups of water in a saucepan over medium heat, and bring it to a boil. Stir in the cilantro, fenugreek, and green chilies. Reduce the heat, and cook until the potatoes are fork tender. Stir in the cooked tuvar dal, and simmer for four to five minutes. Stir in the lemon juice. Remove it from the heat, and set it aside.
 Heat two tablespoons of oil in a small skillet, and add the mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start sputtering, add the halved red chili, asafetida, and curry leaves. Remove it from the stove, and pour the seasoning over the cooked curry. Cover and set aside for ten minutes, to allow the flavors to blend. Serve hot with rice.
This serves 4 to 6 people.
 
This sambhar goes to Sravanthi at When My Soup Came Alive for the 52nd edition of Susan's My Legume Love Affair!

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