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.