Sambhar is probably the most famous dish of southern India. It comes originally from Tamil Nadu, but it’s now found throughout the four states of the south, and virtually all across India for that matter. It’s a form of dal, the most common accompaniment to dosa (crepe-like flatbreads, see Recipe) and idli (steamed breads, see Recipe), and also a big part of a southern rice meal.
There are many different kinds of sambhar, but all are made with toovar dal and are characterized by tamarind-based acidity as a dominant flavour. Sambhar can be thin and soupy, or thick and rich, but it almost always has a distinctive dark butterscotch colour and a tamarind tang in taste. This sambhar is flavoured with a sambhar powder, a spice powder that’s added toward the end of the cooking period. This very typical Tamil sambhar smells great when it’s cooking. It’s easy to prepare, and once you have a good quantity of sambhar powder (the recipe follows) on hand, you’re rolling.
Serve with Homestyle Dosa (see Recipe), or as a soup, diluted a little, or as a topping for rice.
Chop the tamarind coarsely then place in a bowl and add the hot water. Mash with a spoon or a fork to help the pulp dissolve in the water. Set aside to soak for ten minutes.
Place the dal in a large pot with 6 cups (1.4 litres) water. Add the turmeric. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a strong simmer; stir occasionally. Cook for 45 minutes to an hour, until the dal is well cooked and starting to break down.
Meanwhile place a sieve over a bowl. Pour in the tamarind mixture and use the back of a wooden spoon to press it against the mesh of the sieve. Discard the pulp and set the tamarind liquid aside.
When the dal has cooked, pulverize it with a potato masher or heavy whisk so that it has the consistency of split pea soup, then set it over very low heat.
Place a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add the oil, and when hot, add the shallots, green chiles, and curry leaves. Cook for 1 minute, then add the tomato. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes until the tomato starts to break down, then add the salt and sambhar powder and stir in. Add the reserved tamarind liquid and mix again. Bring to a boil, then add the mixture to the dal. Bring the dal to a boil, then reduce heat to low and let sit at a bare simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Adjust the consistency of the dal as desired. Mix in the fresh coriander leaves just before serving. Serve hot.