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 recipe 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 it. In contrast, spices are roasted and ground with coconut to a wet paste for the Varatharaitcha Sambar. So this dish is nothing but Sambar made with the addition of the “Podi”. It tends to be a little thinner in consistency that its coconut based counterpart.
Traditionally, this Sambar (or most kinds varieties 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 version 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 Sambarvegetables 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 dish is basically 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 “Podi” or the spice mix for this dish 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 Podi to make mine. Most store bought 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 gravy.