Why aren’t you stewing? Swetha Sivakumar on the science of sambar - Hindustan Times
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Why aren’t you stewing? Swetha Sivakumar on the science of sambar

BySwetha Sivakumar
Jul 27, 2023 11:31 PM IST

It’s a recipe that doesn’t accommodate tweaks, but there’s a reason each step must be done just right. And the result is so wholesome, it’s worth it.

As a Tamilian, sambar was a big part of my diet growing up and I loved it dearly. But learning to make it was so difficult. “Why can’t I add all the ingredients into a pressure cooker and be done?” I often wondered, in the early years.

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As a fan of short-cuts in cooking, it was frustrating for me. But I soon learnt that a good sambar doesn’t accommodate tweaks. It requires a very specific sequence of steps, done just right. Pressure-cook the dal separately. Soak the tamarind and extract the pulp. Roast the vegetables. Combine. Add spice mix; bring components to a boil.

Now that I understand the science behind them, each step does make perfect sense, down to the rigidity over which dal is used for which time of day.

Sambars eaten with rice for lunch are usually made with toor dal, while breakfast ones use a combination of toor and moong. This is because moong gives the dish a thicker texture that adheres more easily to a chunk of idli or dosa. Toor disintegrates easily, its liquid texture merging better with rice.

Why the many steps with the tamarind? Dals don’t cook well in the presence of strongly acidic ingredients. The acids keep the fibre in the pulses from breaking down and getting to that crucial mushy stage. This is why it is important to boil the tamarind extract separately.

Tomato is also mildly acidic, and simpler, but use it in place of imli( tamarind ) and the dish will not taste as good. Tomatoes don’t have the complexity of flavour of tamarind. Imli develops its complexity from the pod concentrating in the sun before it is harvested, and undergoing slow browning reactions as it ripens. (Each step has a reason.)

Now for the veggies. At home, one can make a sambar with any vegetables lying around. But those made in restaurants or for weddings use a specific list, each item picked for the layer of flavour it adds to the whole. For aroma, members of the allium or brassica family, rich in sulphur compounds, are chosen. These include onions, shallots, drumstick and radish. For a silky texture, vegetables rich in pectin, such as pumpkin and brinjal, are included. For a starchy bite, there is carrot or potato. A pressure cooker would destroy the soft chunks, which are necessary to break the monotony of texture, so the vegetables are instead slow-roasted in oil.

Next, the spices. I have tried numerous store-bought sambar masalas, but none has worked for me. They all seem too spicy without the well-rounded flavours of a homemade mix. For the longest time, I would ask my mother to please make the masala for me, and I would store it for months in my freezer.

Once I hit my 30s, I could not bring myself to trouble her each time, so I began to follow her recipe and replicate it exactly. Although every home has its own list, there are a few must-haves. Red chillies are necessary, to liven up the bland and dense cooked dal. Coriander seeds have fibrous, absorbent seed coats that serve as a thickener when ground. As they are roasted with the other spices, they undergo the Maillard reaction and generate hundreds of new aroma compounds too.

Fenugreek seeds can pack quite a punch, releasing a complex nutty flavour from the pyrazines in them. A small amount of toor and chana dal are roasted in the mix too, for flavour and to act as thickeners. A sambar podi may also include ingredients such as cumin, cinnamon and coconut, based on local preferences and desired shelf life.

The mix must be finely ground so as to seamlessly meld with the stew. Our grandmothers would send roasted ingredients to a neighborhood mill so the large grinders could crush them to a powder. With today’s powerful home blenders, this is thankfully no longer necessary.

Finally, to take the dish to the next level, there is the arachuvitta (freshly ground) step. This involves grating fresh coconut and grinding it with water and spices to form a thick paste. The paste consists of microscopic droplets of fat and fibre mixed together into a creamy emulsion. Fold it into the sambar and it elevates the texture and flavour dramatically.

Not everyone has time for the arachuvitta and the good news is that there is a short-cut here. Dissolve some rice flour or gram flour in water and bring it to a boil. The large starch molecules in the flour will stabilise the solution for a thicker texture (the boost in flavour won’t occur, but it isn’t strictly necessary).

Overall, there is no denying that a good sambar takes time. Is it as difficult as it seems? It isn’t. The process becomes intuitive soon enough, and yields a dish so delicious and wholesome that it is worth all the effort, even to me.

I am now trying to teach my daughter and my nephew how to make it. When my daughter recently became frustrated and asked why we couldn’t just add all the ingredients to a pressure cooker, I smiled. It made me happy that she asked the question. It tells me she values her time. Maybe she will come to see that sometimes, a good stew is worth it.

(To reach Swetha Sivakumar with questions or feedback, email upgrademyfood@gmail.com)

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