This is a recipe for sambar, probably the most universal dish of South India. It has been adapted for the cooler climate of Monterey Bay.

Yield About 12 cups
Time 1½-2 hours
  • medium-sized, heavy saucepan
  • wooden spoon
  • large heavy saucepan or Dutch oven with lid
Ingredients Sambar

  • 1 c toor dal or masoor dal (yellow or pink lentils)
  • 4 potatoes, diced
  • 1 c rutabaga, turnip, or carrot, shredded or grated
  • 28 oz tomatoes, chopped
  • ½ c shredded unsweetened coconut
  • 1 t tamarind concentrate OR the juice of 4 limes/ lemons
  • ¼ c sambar powder
  • 1 t salt
  • 4 eggplants, preferably Asian, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 2 c broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, peas, collards, jackfruit seeds, carrots, snap beans, or other fresh vegetables, cut into large bite-sized pieces
  • 2 hot green chiles, serranos, jalapeños, or Indian chiles (or more, to taste), halved lengthwise
  • 4 drumsticks* cut into 2-in lengths (optional)


  • 1 tbsp of ghee, vegetable oil, olive oil, or corn oil
  • 1 heaping t black mustard seeds 
  • 10 curry leaves, preferably fresh
  • ¼ t asafoetida OR 1 small clove garlic, crushed
  • NOTE: Indians would make and add the tempering at the end. Americans tend to start with it and add the other ingredients so that they cook into it. Both techniques are explained below. 
Directions Toast the lentils over moderate heat until a light toasty aroma arises and the color changes slightly.

Add 2 c water and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat and simmer until the dal is soft and can be stirred into a creamy consistency. Add water while cooking if needed so as not to scorch. (Yellow lentils will take an hour or more, while pink lentils will take about 20 minutes.)

Meanwhile, make the tempering (if following American timing):

Heat the oil or ghee over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds and immediately cover the pan, because they will splutter and pop.

When the spluttering has subsided, stir in the curry leaves and asafoetida or garlic, then add the potatoes and sauté them for about 2 minutes.

(If doing this Indian style, sauté the potatoes in the oil or ghee and wait until the end to making the tempering.)

Stir in the shredded rutabaga or your chosen root vegetable and sauté with the potato until fairly limp. 

Add the tomato, then the coconut, then 2 c of water, and cook, stirring occasionally.

When water is just about to the boiling point, add the tamarind or lime juice.

Stir in sambar powder and salt.

Add the remaining ingredients and stir everything together.

Add another 4 c water and bring to a boil.

Cook until the vegetables are tender but not overcooked, about 15 to 40 minutes, depending on the vegetables.

Sambar should have a spicy, somewhat sour flavor, with sour outweighing any salty flavor. Adjust to your own taste with tamarind or lime juice.

Slowly add the lentils into the sambar while stirring, making it nice and creamy.

(For Indian style, now make and add the tempering.)

Notes *Drumsticks are pods of the tree Moringa oleifera, a legume; there’s no substitute, just leave them out if unavailable. When the sambar is finished, the inside of the drumstick is eaten by running a piece over the teeth like artichoke leaves. Old drumsticks may not be edible as the seeds may be hard but they still add flavor.

Every South Indian makes sambar differently and there are various kinds. In richer households the sambar will probably be thicker. But in general the sambar there is thinner than our recipe so feel free to vary. To me what makes it taste South Indian is the spices and tempering.

Sambar can be eaten with rice and with light South Indian dishes such as idli, a steamed dumpling, or dosa, a sort of large rolled pancake. It is often accompanied by coconut chutney.

I hope that this doesn’t seem too complicated – once you understand the basic procedure, it’s not that difficult.

My thanks to MICHAELFORD1 for sharing this recipe.

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Indian Recipe Index     Vegetarian Main Dishes     Vegan Recipes     Vegetarian Cookbooks