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Varatharaitcha Vendakkai Sambar – Okra in a Spiced Lentil and Coconut Gravy
Sambhar is frequently prepared and served in Palakkad Iyer homes. It is usually eaten mixed with rice, along with a dry vegetable preparation on the side, as the first part of the main meal. Of course, it also accompanies idli,dosai and sometimes vadai (deep-fried savoury black gram lentil snacks) The “Varatha” in the first word of this post title means “fried” and Araitcha” means “ground to a paste”. This refers to the spices and coconut, which are fried/ roasted in very little oil and ground to a paste that is added while making this Sambhar.
For the paste:
  1. Soak the tamarind in one and half cups of warm water for about 15 minutes. Using your fingers, squeeze out and strain the tamarind pulp and keep aside.
  2. Then prepare the paste. For this, heat the 1 tsp oil, turn down the heat to medium, and then add the coriander seeds and Bengal gram. Roast them for about a minute or till the Bengal gram turns golden. Remove this onto a plate.
  3. Now add the fenugreek seeds (take care as these brown very quickly) and the red chillies to whatever oil is remaining. Stir once or twice and as the fenugreek seeds start turning brown, add the asafetida powder, stir once and remove to onto the plate.
  4. Put the coconut into the same pan and roast, stirring constantly, till it turns golden to reddish brown, taking care not to burn it. Remove and allow to cool slightly.
  5. Grind the coconut and the roasted spices into a fine paste, adding as much water as is necessary. Keep aside.
  6. Cut the top and tail off the okra and cut them into 1 1/2 u201c long pieces. In a deep pan, heat 1 tsp of the oil and add the okra pieces to it. Stir fry the okra, over medium heat, for about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the tamarind pulp/ water, salt, curry leaves and turmeric powder. Bring to a boil, and then simmer till the okra is cooked. Then add the tomatoes and let them cook for about 5 minutes or so.
  7. Now slightly mash the cooked lentils with a spoon and add to the above mixture. Mix well and allow to boil for a couple of minutes. Add the coconut-spice paste and the jaggery if using. Many people do not add the jaggery, but I remember my maternal grandmother adding a little bit of jaggery to all preparations made with tamarind. I find this practice adds to the flavour of the preparation without giving it a sweet taste.
  8. Again, mix well till everything is well blended. If the Sambhar is too thick, add a little water to adjust the consistency. Sambhar should be the consistency of a slightly thick gravy. Allow to come to a boil and take it off the heat simmering for a couple of minutes.
  9. In a small pan, heat the remaining 1 tsp oil and add the mustard seeds. When they start spluttering, add the black gram dal. Stir till it starts turning golden. Pour this into the Sambhar. This is the tempering.
  10. Stir only when ready to serve. Serve hot. This recipe should comfortably serve.