How to CookIndian

How to Make Indian Sambar at Home

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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.

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

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Tags: Stew, Lentil, DIY Food, How-To & Diy, Small Batch