Podipotta Sambar – Restaurant Style Coconut-free Vegetable & Lentil In A Tamarind Gravy
For most of India, Sambar is a South Indian staple of vegetables cooked in a tangy gravy and the perfect pairing with Idlis and Dosas. It is indeed that, but is much more. More often than not, in homes in my part of the world, Sambar is also the perfect accompaniment for a meal of rice. We make Sambar in a few different ways and the most popular recipe is the one which is made with a coconut and spice paste.
However, it was only during a recent conversation with someone from the North of India that I realised that many people don’t know the coconut based Varatharaitcha Sambar at all. The Sambar that most of India knows is the Udupi style lentil only based Sambar which is generally served in restaurants across the country, and perhaps the rest of the world in Indian restaurants that serve this dish.
In my native Palakkad Iyer community, this style of vegetable and lentil based restaurant style Sambar is usually referred to as “Podipotta Sambar”. Podi translates as “powder” referring to the addition of Sambar powder (a powdered and dry spice mix) to make this Sambar as compared to roasting and grinding the spices with coconut to a wet paste for the Varatharaitcha Sambar. So a Podipotta Sambar is nothing but Sambar made with the addition of the “Podi”. This Sambar tends to be a little thinner in consistency that its coconut based counterpart.
Traditionally, this Sambar (or most kinds of Sambar for that matter, except the Onion Sambar) is made without onions or garlic. My version uses onions because I like them, but no garlic. One can use an assorted variety of vegetables and ideally a combination of about 4 or 5 vegetables work the best. Vegetables typically used in this type of Sambar are drumstick (Muringa), Sambar cucumber/ melon or gourd, okra, pumpkin, eggplant, etc. I tend to use what I have on hand which this time were the non-traditional Sambar vegetables like onions, tomatoes, carrots, green bell pepper/ capsicum, okra/ ladies finger and some green peas!
As is the case with so many recipes, there are recipe variations not only in individual households but also from region to region. This means that the “Podi” used for this dish can also differ in the spices that go into making it. In and around Udupi, for example, this Sambar is basically a savoury but with very strong sweet over tones. Our Sambars are never sweet even though jaggery is added to it but only to balance out the sour notes of the tamarind but never to sweeten the dish, and so my recipe follows that pattern.
One can make Sambar “Podi” or the spice mix at home by roasting the various spices individually and then grinding them into a fine powder. I don’t make this Sambar as frequently as I make the coconut based one, so I prefer to use a store bought brand of Sambar Podi to make mine. Most Sambar Podi comes with some amount of chilli powder in it, so there's no need to add more unless you would like a little more "fire" in your Sambar. I typically do not add extra chilli powder to my Pdipotta Sambar.
- Prepare the vegetables but cutting vegetables like potatoes, carrots, pumpkin and similar vegetables into roughly 1” cubes. Cut the onions and tomatoes the same way. Okra and drumsticks can be chopped into 1 1/2” to 2” long pieces. Soak the tamarind in a cup of warm water for about 20 minutes, and then press out the tamarind pulp with your fingers into the water. Squeeze the tamarind out and discard. Keep the tamarind liquid aside. Make sure the lentils are very well cooked, soft and mushy. Mash them with a wooden spoon to break them down completely.
- Heat the oil in a pot, turn the heat down to medium and add the mustard seeds. When they splutter, add the lentils and sauté till they turn light golden. Add the asafoetida powder, stir once, then add the curry leaves and the chopped onions. Sauté them until they turn translucent, then add the other vegetables except the tomatoes. Stir fry them for about 2 to 3 minutes, then add the tamarind water and the turmeric powder to the pot. Add a little salt as well.
- Stir and bring it to the boil. Then turn the heat down and let the vegetables cook till done. Once they’re done add the tomatoes to the pot. Let this cook for about 5 minutes and then add the mashed lentils and stir well till the lentils are no longer lumpy and become smooth. Let this cook for another five minutes or so.
- Stir the Sambar spice powder into a quarter cup of water and add this to the pot. If you add the spice powder directly to the hot Sambar it will clump together and become difficult to dissolve. Add the jaggery and stir. Also adjust for salt. Add a little more water if the Sambar seems too thick. Ideally it should be easily pourable but not as thin as a broth. Let everything come to a boil; let it simmer for a couple of minutes, then turn off the heat.
- Do not let the Sambar boil for long after the addition of the spice powder, or the Sambar will lose its fragrance. Serve hot with Idlis, Dosas or rice.