Sambar/Pigeon pea lentil soup with vegetables and a confession

Delhi paanwala (DP): Kahan se ho? (Where are you from?)

My friend from South India (MF): Hyderabad.

DP: Oh! Madrasi? (People from Madras, now Chennai)

MF: Nahin, Hyderabad se hoon. (No, I am from Hyderabad)

DP: Oh, wahi hua na, sab ek hi toh hain. (Oh, it’s all the same)

MF: Nahin, ek nahin hain. (No, they’re NOT all the same.)

He was pretty upset and angry when he was telling me the story. He said “you North Indians, you think all South Indians are Madrasi?” I was laughing because for the longest time ever, I did think that all the ‘South Indians’ were ‘Madrasis’, although I didn’t tell my friend that. Instead, I said “I think it’s mutual ignorance. Just like you think that I am a ‘North Indian’, we think you are all Madrasis”. You must be thinking, this girl is really ignorant about the geography of India…yes I was, but I’m a lot better now.While I knew that there were different states in South India but for no reason, I thought they all spoke the same language and ate the same thing. I thought the food was invariably sour and loaded with tamarind. The few South Indian foods I knew were idly, dhosas (yes, Bengalis write an extra H in there) and maybe uttapams. Isn’t it outrageous? Yes it is. It’s awful. Trust me, we all are biased and have our notions about everything or at least most of the things. I was totally ignorant about so many things, I still am.

Once I came to America (the country which is considered to be a melting pot), I started learning about my own country…yes, I needed to travel several thousand miles away from India to know about something which was a few hundred miles away for twenty-something years of my life. I found friends and colleagues from ‘South India’ and gradually started learning that, no, they are not all ‘Madrasis’, they don’t understand each other’s languages, and they do eat things other than dosa, idli or uttapam. In fact, I am still learning about this fascinating part of the Indian subcontinent. The blogs I follow now are half from ‘South India’ and I love their style of cooking. Curry leaves have become a staple in my fridge and urad daal and mustard are regulars among my tempering spices.

In this post what I meant to say is, sometimes you have to get out of the box to see what’s inside the box. The vision gets really narrow when you are too close to something (that’s my opinion though, may not be true for everybody). I never thought I would be interested in learning about the history of Indian food, but I do now. I can appreciate several things about my own country which I took for granted for so many years. Here is a recipe I borrowed from my roommate and I don’t need to say that it tastes yummy.

Oh, BTW, I am not a North Indian either, in case you are thinking. I am just an Indian 😛

P.S. My husband, who has provincial biases strong even by Bengali standards, has a long-standing grudge ever since he saw something in the Indian store which said “Product of South India”. He was really upset, because nothing is ever labeled “Product of North India” or “Product of East India”.

Sambar recipe:


Toor daal/pigeon pea lentil: 2 cups

Sambar powder (I have used MTR brand but any other brand should be fine): 2-3 tbsp or more (will depend on the brand)

Red chili powder: 1 tbsp or more

Grated coconut: 1/3 cup

Turmeric powder: 1 tsp

Carrots chopped: 1 cup

Cauliflower chopped: 1 cup

Drumstick: 10-15 nos.

Bottle gourd/Lauki: 1 cup chopped

Shallots or pearl onion: 10-12 nos.

Green peas: ½ cup

Tamarind: a lemon sized ball

Water: as needed

Salt to taste

Tempering spices/tadka:

Curry leaves: few

Mustard seeds: 1tsp

Whole dried red chili: 2-3 nos.

  • Soak the tamarind in luke warm water.
  • Wash the daal with several changes of water and then pressure cook it.
  • Transfer it to a deep bottom pot and add all the vegetables (except peas).
  • Add the turmeric powder and let the vegetables cook.
  • Once the vegetables are cooked, take a little bit of the liquid daal in a separate bowl and make a paste with the sambar powder and chili powder. Add the paste to the daal and give it a good stir.
  • Drop in the peas.
  • Add the grated coconut and salt to taste as well.
  • Extract the tamarind pulp from the soaked tamarind and add it to the daal. Mix well again.
  • Let the daal cook for few more minutes and check for taste. If you need more salt, sourness or heat, add accordingly.
  • Heat up the oil in a separate kadai/pot and add the whole mustard seeds. The moment they start spluttering, add the red chilis and the curry leaves. Once the red chilis change color, add the tadka/tempering spices to the daal and cover immediately.
  •  Keep it covered for another 5 minutes or so, mix the spices with daal and then your sambar is ready to be served.

I got this recipe from my old roommate and have been following it ever since. She is from Guntur, Andhrapradesh, so her sambar might be different from other regions. She said traditionally they add dried coconut powder, but she adds regular grated coconut in the US. If you have dried coconut powder in hand, you can use it.

I like my sambar to be a little hot, so you can adjust the chili powder according to your own taste.

You can add more tamarind as well if you like your sambar on the tangy side.

I wish I could make my own sambar powder but unfortunately I don’t. I don’t make it very often, and use store bought one. One day I’ll roll up my sleeves and do it. I used MTR brand and liked it. I have used Aachi brand before and had no complaints either.

I used shallots this time but my roommate used regular onions chopped thick. Previously I used frozen pearl onion and they tasted good as well.

You can add green beans or okra in the sambar too. I added whatever I had in the fridge.