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Taste is Healing: Sambar ~ the Ultimate Vegetable Soup, a Celebration of Kayam

Sambar served over steamed idli, with a side of fresh coconut chutney. Delicious!

Sambar served over steamed idli, with a side of fresh coconut chutney. Delicious!

When patients are asked what they’d like to learn in the next Monday night cooking class at Rasa Ayurveda, the answer is often, “Sambar!”

Sambar is the most popular soup in India. A mix of daal – small split peas – and a tasty melange of vegetables, sambar is served as a main dish or accompaniment for breakfast, lunch, dinner –  for snacks in between and as a dependable feature in most feasts…!  Hardy, spicy, nutritious and easy to digest, sambar will awaken your appetite, warm your belly, nourish your tissues, and maybe even soothe your soul.

Depending on locale and who’s cooking, the ingredients in sambar can vary a little. But one ingredient that you’re guaranteed to taste – and smell! – in sambar is kayam – also known as hing, or asafoetida. This is a tree resin with a very distinctive “Indian kitchen” smell. Before it’s cooked, kayam is quite pungent and should not be stored near other spices or dry beans or grains as the smell of raw kayam can permeate beyond what one may expect. Excellent for warming up the digestion, kayam gives lends that “sambar aroma to sambar. For some it’s an acquired taste. For most Indians, it’s a required taste!

Sambar calms the Vata and Kapha doshas,  and if you don’t add too much chili, it’s fine in moderation for Pitta, especially when the climate is cool.

Collecting ingredients is probably the most challenging step in making sambar. Once you have everything you need, it takes just about 30 minutes from garden to table. Here’s how we make sambar at Rasa Ayurveda…

~ Ingredients ~

For the Pressure Cooker
snake gourd
2 roma tomatoes
1 red onion
a big cucumber
curry leaf
100 grams sambar daal
2 tablespoons coriander powder

For the Varutha
3 teaspoons coconut oil
tumeric powder
red chilli powder
curry leaf
black mustard seeds

For the Finish
Fresh (green) coriander
tamarind pulp
salt – use a good, unprocessed salt, such as Induppu, Himalayan or sea salt
kayam (hing, asafoetida)

~ Preparation ~

Prepare Vegetables
Halve and remove seeds from cucumber and snake gourd. Peel well. Remove skin from onion. Cut stems from eggplant and tomatoes.
Place all vegetables together in a steel bowl. Fill with water and rinse several times. Drain. Shake water off the vegetables. Cut stems from okra once dry. Cut all vegetables into 1 1/2-2″ chunks and place all cut veggies in pressure cooker.

Wash, dry and rough-chop a half-bunch of green coriander/cilantro into 2-3″ lengths, removing any roots, but including the flavorful stems. Set aside.

Prepare Tamarind
Place a 1/2 gold-ball size ball of tamarind paste in a small bowl, and add a few ounces of water. If using paste of the whole tamarind pod, massage the delicate pulp away from the seeds and fibres, removing these with your fingers. Set aside the resulting liquid.

Pressure Cook
Add the sambar daal and 1-1/2 liters water into your pressure cooker with the vegetables. Add the coriander powder. Stir ingredients together, and afix the pot lid.

Place cooker on burner, and set heat to medium high. Once pressure is attained, turn down a little bit to remain on medium setting. If you use a first generation cooker, like we do at Rasa Ayurveda, allow the sambar to cook for 2-3 “fizzles.” After the last fizzle, remove cooker from heat and allow the pressure to come down naturally over time, as the ingredients continue to cook. If you are using a second generation pressure cooker, cook for about 20 minutes at medium-high heat, until daal has softened completely, yielding it’s form.

Roast the Spices
While the cooker is cooling and pressure is coming down (about 10 minutes),  place a “cheena chatti” (a small steel wok) on the burner, to make the varutha, or “magic”. Heat coconut oil until almost smoking, and add the whole black mustard seeds. The seeds will pop open like popcorn. When they do, add a dry red chili which has been torn into a few pieces. The drop 10 – 15 fresh curry leaves (yes, more curry leaves!) into the pan, followed by 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder. Stir for about 3 minutes, being careful not to burn!

When the pressure cooker can be opened safely, add the “magic” into the cooker. Pour some of the soupy sambar back into the pan in which you roasted the pieces and swish it about, adding this back into the pressure cooker, scraping out any ingredients that remain in the cheena chatti.
Next, add the strong-smelling kayam. If using paste, add a small ball the size of a large green pea. If using pure powder, add 2 small pinches – about 1/8 teaspoon.)
Add salt to taste.
Add the green coriander, also called cilantro.
Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes.

Serve sambar hot with idlis, dosha or a bowl of steaming-hot rice…

We look forward to welcoming you to Rasa Ayurveda Traditional Healing Centre for Women.

With warmest regards~

Niika Quistgard, CAS
Founder & Director, Rasa Ayurveda Traditional Healing Centre for Women
Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India