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!