In most Iyer homes, Sambar generally falls into one of two categories. Sambar is a South Indian spicy vegetables in gravy dish One is the Araitchuvitta Sambar, Here roasted spices and fresh grated coconut are ground into a fine paste and added to the gravy. The other is the Podipotta Sambar where a “Podi” or a spice powder made from roasted spices (no coconut) goes into the gravy. My version of the Chinna Vengayam or Madras Onion/ Shallots Sambar lies somewhere between these two versions. I make this Sambar with coconut and ready-made Sambar powder though you could your own Sambar spice blend. It can also be made without the coconut if you would like it that way.
This dish is technically not a traditional Palakkad Iyer dish as traditionally, onions and garlic were never a part of our cuisine. However, it is one that is cooked in many homes in the community today. This version is extremely popular with most South Indians and is one of my favourites. I think it is the flavour that comes from caramelized shallots/ Madras onions that makes all the difference.
To make a Chinna Vengayam Sambar (where Chinna means small and Vengayam means onions), you need the smaller reddish pink variety of shallots. They’re also known across India as Madras onions, or somemes as tiSambar onions. In Kerala, these are known as “Ulli” or “Cheriya Ulli” depending on which part of the state you are in. If you can’t find them, you can use regular medium sized onions after them cutting them into quarters or eights.
While the recipe is simple and it doesn’t take much time to cook, cleaning Madras onions can be sheer drudgery. Prepping them involves trimming off both ends, and peeling off the dry and flaky outer skin. A small sharp knife, some patience and a little more time is what it takes to clean them, a chore I thoroughly dislike. People will tell you soaking the onions in water, or putting them in a jute bag and rubbing them will make the outer skin loosen easier but I personally find these methods are more tedious and definitely messier.
Chinna Vengayam Sambar – Madras Onions/ Shallots in a Spiced Lentil & Coconut Gravy
- 1/4 kg Madras onions/ shallots
- marble sized ball tamarind
- 1/4 cup fresh grated coconut
- 2 to 3 tsp sambar powder
- 2 tbsp oil
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 1 1/2 tsp Black gram lentils
- 1/4 tsp asafoetida
- 2 sprigs curry leaves
- 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
- to taste salt
- 3/4 cup cooked and mashed red gram lentils (tuvar dal)
- 1 tsp powdered jaggery (or brown sugar)
- First prep the Madras onions/ shallots by trimming of both ends with a sharp knife. Then remove the outermost layer of each onion. When all are done, rinse them and drain well. Keep aside.
- Next soak the tamarind in about 2 cups of warm water, rubbing the tamarind to loosen the pulp. Keep aside. Grind the coconut and the Sambar spice powder together with a little water to a smooth paste. Keep aside.
- Heat the oil in a pot or wok and add the mustard seeds. When they crackle add the lentils and let them fry to a golden brown but do not let them darken. Add the asafetida powder, the curry leaves and the onions and sauté the onions over a medium flame until the start turning a light brown. Do not let them darken.
- Squeeze out the tamarind after extracting the pulp with your fingers. Discard the solids and pour the brown liquid into the onions. Add the turmeric powder and the salt, stir well and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and cover. Let this simmer until the onions are cooked, and a bit soft.
- Now mix in the cooked and mashed lentils and let it start bubbling. Cook for about 5 minute. Then mix in a couple of tbsp of water to the coconut paste and add that to the pot. Stir well and bring to a boil. Add the jaggery, mix and let it simmer for about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Serve hot with Idlis (steamed savoury rice and lentil cakes)or Dosas (savoury South Indian rice and lentil crepes), or with rice and vegetables on the side.