Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Making Peace With Sambar

That's a beetroot sambar in the making


Till I went to hostel where I spent six years, my meals, made at home in Andhra Pradesh by my grandmother, had been varied: a dal everyday, sometimes a gravy, a couple of dry vegetable preparations, a chutney. There would be a fresh menu in the evenings, usually lighter, except on the days that we had meat, which was made for dinnertime because everyone in the family would be present. This meal consisted of bottlegourd or ridgegourd curried in milk, or a tomato-based curry, another dry vegetable dish or scrambled eggs and ‘charu’. This last ran the gamut from a dal-less, pepperful affair to a red tomatoey one to one that was full of vegetables and yellow with a little dal. I don’t remember where sambar figured in all this. Maybe it was made when we had idlis for breakfast and it would be served again in the evening. In any case, those were days when I did not care too much about the distinctions between charu and sambar so I may well have eaten one thinking it was the other. All I know was that it was not a daily affair.

When I went to college in Tamil Nadu and lived in the hostel, sambar made an appearance at every meal, morning and evening, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Well, yes, there was the odd day when we were given a chapatti dinner and sambar would not be available then, but I swear, one day we were given sambar and bread for breakfast! The food at the hostels I lived in had the salutary effect of making me eat whatever vegetables were served, but it also bred in me a long-lasting distaste for sambar which I have not been able to shed quickly. And in Tamil Nadu, wherever you go, hostels or hotels, it unfailingly makes an appearance. I don’t mind home sambars so much but I keep institutional sambars at an arm’s length.

It also took me a while to realize that vegetables were a sideshow to the sambar, because at home, we mix them directly with the rice and consume them, unlike in Tamil Nadu where they accompany the rice which has been mixed with sambar. I still don’t believe that sambar and coconut chutney are the best accompaniments to tiffins, and my first choice of food to eat or serve will never be sambar.

In ordinary circumstances.

About two or three months ago, I realized it can be a very convenient dish to make when you are time-, sleep- or energy-poor. Ever since I stumbled on the realization that ‘lime-sized ball of tamarind’ does not cut it and my perfect sambar needs to be made with tamarind at least the size of a small orange for a cup of toor dal, I have felt more enthusiastic about it. And The Spouse has been bred in sambar-land, and he does not really seem to need anything much else if there is a vat of it available. And I love vegetables, which, if I cannot prepare them in a style to suit my own taste because of the lack of time and energy, sambar is an opportune vehicle to carry them.

Of course, this is easier done The Spouse-style when you put everything into the pressure cooker – vegetables, tamarind, dal, spices – and finish off with it, but I like my vegetables to retain their shape so I pressure cook them separately and finish the sambar in two stages. I have even gone so far as having fun with it by using different brands of sambar powder to check which one tastes best. I seem to have overdone it, though, because I don’t remember now and I must begin the cycle all over again.

Last evening, I was telling my friend that I had the title of the next post on my blog but not the substance, really, and that must have been playing on my mind. Because I came home and extracted all the edible odds and ends from the fridge and they did not amount to much, especially considering The Spouse who was chugging back home in a journey that began seven hours ago. It was past 10 p. m. I had three carrots and two shriveling beetroots – I cut up those and set them to pressure cook with an orange-sized fistful of tamarind. Then I extracted the cooked vegetables, cooled the tamarind, gave it a good squeeze, discarded it, transferred the juice and the vegetables to a pan and added some cooked dal that I had in the fridge to it and let it boil after adding some sambar powder to it.

I have had beetroot sambar only once earlier, at an aunt’s house about 20 years ago, and meal time was dominated by laughs about how strange and funny that maroon sambar was. As I prepare to post this on the blog, the 146,000 Google results the computer returns in 0.44 seconds tells me it’s not all that unusual. Probably the reason why half of the few friends who responded to a ‘Guess what’s cooking’ photo on Facebook got it right!

28 comments:

  1. Funnily enough my hostel did not serve sambhar everyday. Most times it used to be a cross of vegetables stewed in coconut gravy (possibly morning's chutney left over) and a very watered pepper infused tamarind dominant rasam.
    Again between me, my mom and sisters, each of us do sambhar differently to suit our tastes and the consistency.
    I have not tried sambhar powders other than what I make at home. if you go through the roll once again do share which tastes best.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sure, will let you know, Latha! And I think that's very unusual for a hostel in TN, not to serve sambar everyday!

      Delete
  2. Sra, I know the hostel sambhar very well. Even at home where the best sambhar was made I was never a fan. That is till I crossed the seas to live in a different country. Now I can't go without it for more than a week.

    I have added beets,cauliflower, carrots, beans to sambhar and they all give their one twist to sambhar.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've had all of these too, Indo. I don't much care for the taste of carrots and beans in sambar, though I use carrots often!

      Delete
  3. Funnily enough, I met you on Sat evening, and I had beetroot sambar for Sunday lunch, and today I read this. I make sambar once in a while, but never beetroot because the rest of the family rebels. The Sunday fling was at a potluck where Srilata got the sambar, and I licked it off with relish.

    I like your photos!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Meena, am I thrilled that you commented! It was so nice to hear from you that day and now this! I feel like I got a prize or something!

      Delete
  4. Funnily enough, I met you on Sat evening, had beetroot sambar for Sunday lunch, and today I read this. I make sambar once in a while, but never with beetroot because the rest of the family rebels. The Sunday fling was at a potluck where Srilata brought the sambar, and I licked it off almost single-handedly.

    I like your pictures!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Im from the city of Nawabs - Hyderabad but i love the Sambar my Mom makes(She is from Kerala). Her Sambar has a lot of tamarind, no sambar powder and a veriety of vegetables. If her Sambar is around - anything is edible even a blanket.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anu, I just visited your blog, do you have a recipe somewhere for it?

      Delete
  6. I could happily consume a vat of sambar, by myself! :) Never had the dubious pleasure of hostel food, so if there was a swimming pool of sambar available, i would go and wallow in it :) I used to do a pressure cooker sambar the way a boyfriend made it, but now I've forgotten the recipe. End of rambling and random comment.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Shyam, you're not rambling.
      In the college in AP where I did my Intermediate course, we heard that guys in the hostel dunked the cook in the vat of sambar he made because it was so awful!

      Delete
    2. Hahaha, not sure that would have improved the taste of the sambar, though! :D

      Delete
  7. I am not a sambar person -my mom made it once in a week and me too. A orange size tamarind - is that very very tangy ur sambar..
    Hehe i imagine the bread dipped in sambar -that is crazy!
    I never made beet sambar- i love drumstick sambar which is the best!

    ReplyDelete
  8. I like drumstick sambar too but haven't got the trick to making mine taste of drumstick when I make it myself. And yes, our sambar is tangy but when I use less tamarind it doesn't taste as good!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I only got the taste of Sambar once moving to India. I like it thick and home cooked. I could imagine why you would get sick of the taste after eating it everyday though! I like your Sambar, looks tasty :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Amelia. It was okay, and it turned my rice pink, as you can imagine!

      Delete
  10. I have made beetroot sambhar you know with big bite size chunks.. ..even made bean sprouts sambhar.. but to be very frank, I like home-made sambhar any day as compared to what we get outside in hotels or restaurant or in hostel...in fact any vegetables in sambhar works fine for me ...I hear you told us about bottle gourd +milk and ridge gourd +milk preparation ..we make the bottle gourd+milk "dudh lao" preparation but don't add coconut to it ( some homes do that even)..how do you like to make it Sra..hugs and smiles

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bean sprouts sambar is new! Jaya, I haven't heard of adding coconut to these milk curries, we just make a soft stir fry sort of thing with onion and add this at the end.

      Delete
  11. I like sambhar, mostly the ones I have had outside.I also find it a great way to use up vegetables and make one pretty often.Only mine does not have any ball of tamarind, only a teeny bit of tam concentrate and also ahem sugar

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ahem! But you know, Sandeepa, many people add jaggery quite routinely to sambar. Sugar sounds better than two hefty pinches of saffron, which a chef did in his interpretation of sambar. Made my toes curl.

      Delete

  12. This looks so delicious and flavorful! I love sambar, and I definitely need to try it like this.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Must admit I have never tried a beetroot sambhar! This looks intriguing and I love eating unusual colors (I know that sounds weird). Your description of food in Tamil Nadu brought back many unsavory memories of my own 3yrs in a hostel in Chennai. Sambhar truly was all-pervasive! But thankfully, I have gotten over that distaste and hv come around to making sambhar at least once a week at home :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. :) It's not weird at all. Glad to know you shared the same experience, even though it was unsavoury.

      Delete
  14. I love sambar and have never been subjected to the daily sambar torture - I've also never tasted hostel food,so I'm not sure how good/bad that version of sambar is.
    My best sambar memories are from my college canteen run by shettys. the best sambar ever. Here its hit or miss - some places do it well. I have attempted making it at home and it always falls short - it somehow is either too hot, too tangy but never sweet enough. I love it as a vegetable vehicle too. I really hope to get it right some day - until then I'll keep eating sambhar every opportunity I get to find the holy grail.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't like canteen or hotel sambar at all, Archana, I much prefer the home-made one. I don't get the sambar right, either, an orange-sized amount of tamarind must be anathema to most people, but somehow, it worked out for us that way. And it's a great catch-all for veggies.

      Delete