Friday, 3 February 2012

Sambar: vegetable soup

You call that Sambar?
You need a nice bowl of hot soup on a morning like this...
Warning:  A traditional South Indian will hyperventilate upon reading my recipe for this vegetarian soup that is served for breakfast and lunch in many homes and restaurants.  I break all the rules.  Why not?  Years ago I used to teach high school English classes to adults who were usually immigrants.  Knowing that people write best about what they love most, (and knowing that I marked higher when I got to read about what I love most) I’d have my learners write directions for how to make their favourite meals.  One that astonished me was a young Vietnamese man’s breakfast of Campbell’s Tomato Soup.  He charmingly described how to open the can, pour it in a pot, and heat it up.  His descriptions of its warming fragrance warmed my heart.  Who knew that canned tomato soup could be such a blissful luxury on a winter’s morning?  So, with a nod to his non-traditional interpretation of a common soup, here’s my recipe for the South Indian vegetable soup known as Sambar:

The Masala
½ tablespoon chilli flakes
½ tablespoon coriander seed
½ tablespoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon black salt (found in Indian grocery stores)
¼ teaspoon asafoetida (if you can’t pronounce this, just say hing, which means asafat eee? da?)
Turn on your hood vent to full blast.  Turn the heat on under your non stick soup pot, and gently roast the above ingredients for a few moments.  Watch them very carefully, so they don’t burn, or sting.   Put them into a spice grinder, and blend them to a medium fine powder.
The Vegetables
1 diced red onion
1 inch fresh ginger, cut into matchsticks
2 tablespoons grape seed oil and another splash
Such beautiful colours at this stage!
1 ½ teaspoons dark mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seed
4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
¼ head sliced and diced red cabbage
1 cup masoor dal (tiny orange lentils)
4 litres fresh cold water
1 tablespoon tamarind paste
½ cup dried young coconut, diced (a Filipino product I found at Costco!)
1 red pepper, diced
bunch of fresh fenugreek leaves, washed and plucked
bunch of fresh cilantro leaves and stems, washed and chopped (Scissors work well!)
Get  your ingredients ready and then heat the pot again.  When it’s hot, add oil and a few mustard seeds.  When they start to pop, add the rest.  After they’ve sizzled and splattered for a few moments, add the cumin and it will also sizzle and splatter.  Add the onion and ginger and stir to cool everything down.  Turn heat to medium.  After they’ve caramelised and softened a bit, add garlic and cook for a few moments, not letting the garlic brown.  Add your masala and a little more oil.  Cook the masala a few minutes, then add cabbage and stir.  Let the cabbage braise a bit, to begin to soften and add the dal.  Traditionally, one should use toor dal (yellow lentils), but you’d need to cook them separately as they don’t want to soften when cooked with salt.  I much prefer the masoor dal, (orange lentils) because I prefer their taste, they cook more quickly, and they don’t argue with salt.  Stir and add the water, tamarind paste and diced dried young coconut.  (The coconut is my idea entirely.  It brings a subtle sweetness and a wonderful texture to this hearty soup.)
Bring to a boil, cover, and turn down to medium low and cook for an hour.  Add diced red pepper in the last ten minutes of cooking.  A minute before serving, add the fresh fenugreek leaves, and chopped cilantro.  This delicious soup tantalizes to such a degree that you may want it for breakfast, lunch and dinner!


  1. lovely flavours in this dish looks wonderful
    following you nice to meet you Mary

    1. Thanks Torviewtoronto! It's a colourful soup and it's so healthy! I'll be following you too!

  2. Hi Mary-Your posts are as warm and nurturing as you recipes.

  3. Thanks Susan! It's very warm and nurturing for you to say so.

  4. Looks delicious! I wish I cold "scratch and sniff" the picture!