DIY Food

How to Make Indian Sambar at Home

May 27, 2014

It's always more fun to DIY. Every week, we'll spare you a trip to the grocery store and show you how to make small batches of great foods at home.

Today: Throw your take-out menus away. Chitra Agrawal of The ABCD's of Cooking is sharing a recipe for a spicy Indian staple that makes for the perfect lunch or dinner any day of the week.

Shop the Story

Sambar, a spicy lentil and vegetable stew, is a staple in most South Indian homes. The recipe I make is one that I learned from my mother, who is from Bangalore. but because each household in South India has their own recipe for the fragrant spice mixture that flavors sambar, the stew tastes slightly different from home to home.

On most days growing up, we had different variations of sambar for dinner depending on what vegetables my mother had on hand. Most people eat it with rice, and it can also be served with idlis (steamed lentil and rice cakes) or dosa (fried lentil and rice crêpes). 

More: Balance out the sambar's heat with a cooling mango lassi.

To make sambar, you need at least 5 ingredients, which you can buy at an Indian grocery store: masoor dal (red lentils) or toor dal (pigeon peas), sambar powder, tamarind paste, black mustard seeds, and curry leaves; turmeric is a sixth optional ingredient. I use masoor dal in my recipe because it takes a lot less time to cook than toor dal, but my mother uses toor and cooks it with a pressure cooker. Once you have these main ingredients, you only need to buy fresh vegetables to complete the meal. 

More: Sop up any leftover sambar with homemade naan.

What’s nice about sambar is that you can make it as hearty or as light as you like it depending on how much water you add. It’s also packed with protein from the lentils, which makes it perfect for a complete meal when paired with rice or naan. 

Spinach Sambar

Serves 4

2 cups spinach, chopped
1 cup masoor (red lentils)
2 tablespoons sambar powder (I recommend MTR brand)
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric 
1 teaspoon tamarind paste (look for Tamcon or Swad brand)
3 tablespoons ghee or vegetable, canola, or safflower oil
1 pinch asafoetida (also called "hing")
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
4 fresh curry leaves
1 dried red Indian chili pepper, broken in half
1/2 red onion, chopped
Chopped cilantro

Wash the masoor dal until the water runs clear, then drain and set aside.


Add the drained lentils and 7 cups of water to a pot. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then simmer. While the dal is cooking, ladle out any foam that comes to the surface. Once the foam stops, mix in the turmeric.


Continue to cook the dal for 30 to 40 minutes, until the lentils are falling apart. At this point, mix in the chopped spinach and cook for 3 to 4 minutes or until the spinach is wilted. 

Add the sambar powder, mix well, and simmer for 5 minutes. A golden residue should form on the surface.


Season the mixture with salt and add the tamarind concentrate, making sure that it dissolves completely. Now is the point where you can add more water if you want a thinner dal.

Cook for a few more minutes, then remove from the heat.

In a separate small pan over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons of ghee or oil and add the asafoetida and black mustard seeds. Wait for the seeds to pop a bit. (To speed this up, you can cover the pan with a lid.)

Once the black mustard seeds have popped for a few seconds, turn the heat down and add the curry leaves and the dried red chili. 

Coat the leaves and chili with the oil and fry for a few seconds. Add the chopped onions and fry for 10 minutes on low heat. The onions should become translucent and fragrant. 

Pour this mixture over the lentils and spinach and mix well. Garnish with chopped cilantro leaves and serve over rice, with yogurt and achaar (Indian pickle) on the side.

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Chitra Agrawal

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Tara
  • Panfusine
  • Miachel Pruett
    Miachel Pruett
  • Anitalectric
  • Angela Kim
    Angela Kim
Specialize in Indian recipes using local ingredients. I'm the owner of Brooklyn Delhi and author of Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn (Penguin Random House).


Tara August 4, 2014
Dear Chitra, I loved seeing this recipe on Food52 and discovering your blog and pickles! I'm also Kannada born and brought up the US and my mom made this huli practically every other day and it is one of my favorites. I'm so excited to see this being shared with such a wider audience. Thank you!
Panfusine June 6, 2014
I just remembered reading about how Sambar as a dish came to exist. Of course I have no paper verification about it, but the story goes as follows:
It was said to have bee created for the Maratha king of Tanjore, Sambaji Rao (Tanjore is a district in Tamil Nadu, South India, that was ruled by the Marathas, who originally hailed from Western India). Sambaji's native cuisine utilized 'Kokum' (a relative of the Mangosteen family) as a souring agent. WHich was not available down south. Hence his cooks came up with the idea of using native tamarind instead to add to his lentil Dal (most likely 'aamti' which is a classic Dal dish from the western state of Maharashtra). Net result: the King was happy, the dish got named after him, and no one lost their livelihood!
Chitra: In all probability, you've posted what may be the most original version 1.0 of Sambar!..
Miachel P. May 28, 2014
I bought hing about a year long does it usually last?
Chitra A. May 29, 2014
Thanks so much! If you have stored it in an air-tight container and it still smells pungent, then you are good to go. If not, then I would buy it again. Good quality hing can last up to a few years.
Miachel P. May 28, 2014
This sounds delicious! :)
Anitalectric May 28, 2014
Nice one, Chitra! when is your book coming out? I can't wait to try more of your recipes! I am already such a big fan of your tomato achaar it is sooo good on everything. Please post more recipes on the blog it's nice to add some Chitra spice into the mix!
Chitra A. May 29, 2014
Thanks so much Anita and so glad you are enjoying my tomato achaar:)
Angela K. May 28, 2014
Hello! I would like to share another sambar recipe. It's a hand-me-down recipe from a friend's mother who is from Kerala. It's absolutely delicious, although the list of ingredients and the method is slightly longer than the one here. Nevertheless, if anyone wants to have a go, here's the link;
This recipe has also been featured in The Guardian's Cook section two months ago.
Chitra A. May 28, 2014
Thanks for sharing Angela! I love Kerala style cooking and interesting to see the addition of tomatoes in sambar, very cool. Have you had appam? Had it for the first time at a friend's house, so good!
Lalitha R. May 28, 2014
I am a Tamilian and make sambar once a week at least. Though it doesn't look like the sambar we make I am glad one of the versions got published here. In Tamil sambar fenugreek is a must tempering item and our sambar powder is quite different from MTR.
Chitra A. May 28, 2014
Thanks for your comment Lalitha. In my recipe, I note that you can add more water or less depending on your preference, this is just our family's. For my students I recommend MTR powder when they first make the dish but my family's sambar pudi has the following ingredients:
coriander seeds, chana dal, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, urad dal, peppercorns, hing, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, chili powder, curry leaves, dessicated coconut (optional) - can add later

Instead of tempering fenugreek later, we fry and grind it into our powder. Share the ingredients in your Tamil sambar powder in the comments. I love seeing the variations of ingredients from state to state.
Marion G. May 27, 2014
Amazing looking recipe, can't wait to try it! As you mentioned in the article, each family makes theirs in a different way, and that is what makes it so amenable to what ingredients you have on hand. So glad there are people who feel the need to nitpick/complain/sermonize.
Chitra A. May 28, 2014
Thanks Marion, I hope you enjoy the recipe and let me know if you have any questions on it!
Lost_in_NYC May 27, 2014
This is more of a daal than a sambar. Sambar is a South Indian dish and is more thin-soupy in texture and not thick like the one noted above.
Chitra A. May 27, 2014
Thanks for your comment Lost_in_NYC. Many times sambar in restaurants is more watery, that is correct! Dal means lentils and there is always dal in sambar. Every family in South India makes their sambar to a different thickness. My mother who is from Bangalore always made ours a bit thicker because she said it was more nutritious that way.
Panfusine May 27, 2014
The basic list of ingredients is spot on, but as Lost in NYC mentioned, Sambar (the traditional style made in Tamil Nadu) usually involves sauteing the onions with the tempering and the sambar powder, and cooking the vegetables in Tamarind water. The Dal (Pigeon peas usually, but Masoor lentils are also used , a contribution from South Indians who migrated to New DElhi ~ 1930's ) is cooked separately, mashed and added after the vegetables have cooked. After that the mix is brought to a boil and immediately removed from the heat. The classic version isn't quite as thick as a dal.
Chitra A. May 27, 2014
Panfusine, My family is from Karnataka so always nice to learn how other states prepare similar dishes:) We also refer to sambar as huli in Kannada. This recipe was passed down from my grandmother who is from Mysore.
Panfusine May 28, 2014
I'd love to learn more about Mysore cuisine. Looking forward to browsing your blog!