Sambar is a vegetable stew or chowder based on a broth made with tamarind and toovar dal, and is very popular in the cooking of southern regions of India especially in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The toovar dal is cooked until they are crumbled. Tamarind pulp is soaked in water to extract the flavour and then the pulp is discarded. A mixture of ground spices known as sambar powder (which contains roasted coriander seeds, chillies, lentils, and other spices) and tamarind are added to the dal. Vegetables and spices such as turmeric and chilli powder are also added. The dal and vegetable stew is heated until the vegetables cook. A wide variety of vegetables may be added to sambar. Typical vegetables include okra, drumstick, carrot, radish, pumpkin, potatoes, tomatoes, brinjal and whole or halved shallots or onions, but many different vegetables may be used with adequate results. Typically sambar will contain one or several seasonal vegetables as the main vegetables in the soup.
The cooked sambar is typically eaten with an oil-fried spice mixture containing items such mustard seeds, urad dal, dried red chillies, curry leaves, fenugreek seeds, coriander seeds, and asafoetida. Fresh curry leaves or coriander leaves may be added at the very end to enhance the flavor. Curry leaves in particular are an essential element of authentic sambar; their aroma and flavor provide sambar with a distinct and pleasant herbal essence.
Sambar is reflective of a broad and ancient tradition of dal-based vegetable stews in southern India. Many regions and families of the Indian subcontinent have developed and maintained their own adaptations of a dal and vegetable stew, and similar preparations are evident in such dishes known in local languages as rasam, charu, saaru, and pappu pulusu.
Most contain the common elements like toovar dal, tamarind, vegetables, sambar powder, and an oil-fried spice seed seasoning, although the soup can be made to have many different flavors depending on vegetables and selection of spices used.
The taste of the sambar is derived from the spices added to it.
This powder is prepared by pan roasting the whole spices and grinding them to a rather coarse powder.
Sambar is usually served with steamed rice. Sambar with rice is one of the main courses of both formal and everyday south Indian cuisine. In Tamil Nadu, vada sambar and idli sambar are popular for breakfast or lunch, and sambar is often served as a side dish at dinner.
A two-course meal, the first consisting of sambar mixed with rice and eaten with some sort of vegetable side dish, and the second consisting of yoghurt mixed with rice, is perhaps one of the most common meals eaten in a typical southern Indian home.