A few years ago, I was at a breakfast meeting at ITC Grand Chola in Chennai. It was a dish on the menu that caught my attention more than the pressing agenda of the meeting. The aromas from the sambar wafted through the dining area while the flavours were a nostalgia trip of their own. Much later in the day, I caught up with the culinary team and popped the question that was on top of mind - "Was that an arachuvita sambar?"
If you've travelled across South India, you probably know that there's more than one type of sambar. Even the same restaurant might serve you a different sambar for breakfast and a different version for lunch with more vegetables and a different consistency. But most sambars have one common thread - sambar powder. It's this powder that often defines the flavour profile of the sambar and many home cooks swear by their favourite brand of sambar powder. One of the most unique aspects of the arachuvita sambar is the use of a freshly ground paste that replaces a factory-made sambar powder.
(Also Read: 6 Best Sambar Recipes)
'Arachuvita' translates to ground, the key flavouring agents for this sambar are freshly ground just as you make the sambar and added to the sambar towards the end of the cooking process. One of the best versions of the arachuvita sambar I sampled was in the temple town of Kumbakonam. I was a child then, but the flavours still linger; it was then that my mother explained the intricate process that goes into making this sambar. It's the same conversation I had with Chef Praveen Anand - Executive Chef, South Indian cuisine, ITC Hotels, about the finer techniques of this sambar.
The sambar masala combines ingredients like coriander seeds, fenugreek, Bengal gram, dried red chillies, and freshly grated coconut. The choice of chillies determines the spice level. Chef Praveen has been to many homes in Tamil Nadu in his quest for authentic recipes and he favours the less spicy Ramnad chillies for this recipe. The other step that impacts the flavour is whether the coconut is also fried with the ingredients or added to the blender after you roast the spices. I prefer throwing in the fresh coconut without roasting. The other trick I learnt from my mother was to throw in a teaspoon of jaggery; an optional step that accentuates the flavours. The choice of oil is an equally important aspect; I'd recommend using gingelly (sesame) oil although quite a few homes also use coconut oil.
Until recently many homes would grind these spices with a stone pestle (ammi kal in Tamil) but now the small mixer jar has taken over. The rest of the process is similar to a sambar - you use cooked toor dal and tamarind water along with this masala. Our recipe (below) uses drumstick and shallots. This is probably the best combination of vegetables for the arachuvita sambar, but you can use vegetables like okra or pumpkin too. The other thing you will notice is the slight colour difference with this sambar; it is browner rather than the brighter orange-yellow hue typically associated with this dish. The arachuvita sambar tastes best with rice but is equally delicious with idli and is part of festive menus across many homes in Tamil Nadu.
Arachuvita Sambar Recipe
Recipe courtesy: Chef Praveen Anand - Executive Chef, South Indian cuisine, ITC Hotels
- Toor dal - 1 cup / 200 gm
- Tamarind - Gooseberry size / 40 gm (Mixed in 1 cup water)
- Shallots / Sambar Onion - 20 no
- Drumstick - 2 no (1.5-inch-long cut)
- Turmeric powder - 1/2 tsp / 3 gm
- Salt - To taste
- Red chilli - 4 no.
- Coriander seed - 2 Tbs / 30 gm
- Fenugreek seed - 1 tsp / 5 gm
- Raw rice - 2 tsp / 10 gm
- Bengal gram dal - 2 tsp / 10 gm
- Fresh Coconut grated - 3 Tbs / 45 gm
- Gingelly / Sesame oil - 2 Tbs / 30 gm
- Mustard seed - 1/2 tsp / 3 gm
- Fenugreek seed - 1/2 tsp / 3gm
- Curry leaves - 20 no
- Coriander leaves, chopped - 1 Tbs / 10 gm
- Asafoetida - a pinch
1. Cook toor dal with turmeric powder and about 3 cups of water. Mash.
2. Extract tamarind water. Set aside.
3. For masala, heat a pan and toss in Bengal gram dal and roast on low heat till well browned. Add rice, coriander seed, fenugreek seed and the red chilli and roast till aroma starts to emanate from the roasting ingredients. Toss in the grated coconut and stir fry for a 2 min and remove from fire and allow to cool. (You could also add the coconut to the blender once the other ingredients cool down) Blend to a fine paste with a little water. Keep aside.
4. Heat 1 Tbs sesame oil in a pan and toss in the shallots and drumstick, sauté on medium heat for 2 minutes.
5. Add the tamarind water and cook covered on low heat till drumstick is cooked (about 10-15 minutes) adding little water if required
6. Add the cooked dal, salt and the ground masala to the cooked vegetable
7. Bring to boil and simmer. Check seasoning.
8. In a separate pan heat the rest of sesame oil, when smoking hot toss in mustard, fenugreek, asafoetida and curry leaves.
9. When mustard starts to crackle, pour into the simmering sambar. Mix well.
10. Garnish with coriander and serve hot.
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.