Aside from being with my family, one of the things I miss most about Delhi is a South Indian restaurant called Sagar, in my neighborhood market (Many neighborhoods—or “colonies” in Delhi speak—have their own little shopping markets). Sagar, a veritable culinary institution as far as I’m concerned, has remained remarkably unchanged in the twenty or so years since my family has been eating there (a weekly culinary expedition started by my grandmother, who was a huge fan of dosas, South Indian savory crepes usually with a spicy potato filling). Yes, the prices have crawled up, but Sagar is still very affordable. The restaurant has a no-frills approach (despite occasional menu revamps) to food and produces consistently delicious dishes. I must have eaten there hundreds of times, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad meal. Best of all, the flavors never seem to change, and I love the sense of security that comes with that.
With your idli, dosa, uttapam, or thali, you receive unlimited bowls of coconut chutney, a spicy tomato chutney, and steaming, sippable bowls of sambar. In Durham, unable though I am to fully recreate the Sagar experience, I have, nonetheless developed a sambhar recipe that I think has some capacity to transport its consumer to Def. Col. Market.
This dish does require a trip to the Indian store, but I think it’s worth it. My shortcut is buying already-mixed sambhar powder, rather than making my own (you also get sambhar paste at Indian groceries, which also works fine here. Just follow the same steps). Sambhar powder is a combination of coriander seeds, turmeric, cumin, red chillis, salt, fenugreek seeds, black pepper, brown mustard seeds, cassia, dried ginger, large cardamom seeds, nutmeg, cloves, mace, caraway, and asafetida. Phew! So rather than assembling all of those spices on your own (which is of course highly enjoyable and fun, but time consuming), I recommend buying the powder as is. It smells fragrant (from the cloves, nutmeg and cardamom seeds) and has a lovely marigold color. The key to this dish is to “fry” the sambhar powder to release all the oils in the spices. If you don’t fry the sambhar powder, the curry will have a raw flavor to it.
Easy Sambhar is another one of my one-pot meals. It’s delicious with white or brown rice or with idlis. You want the sambhar to be a bit watery—more like a soup than a stew. It should taste tangy, sour, and spicy, but the level of chili is up to you. This can be very mild or very spicy hot, depending on your own personal taste preferences.
Prep. time: 1 hour
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 dry red chili (more, if you like)
5 curry leaves (dry or fresh)
1 pinch asafetida
½ onion, cut into slim half-moons
1 roma tomato, chopped
½ cup red lentils
8 tsp. sambhar powder (I know it sounds like a lot but that is what you need to make the flavors pop)
1 tbsp. tamarind concentrate (I’ve found that tamarind concentrate varies quite a lot depending on what brand you buy. I recommend starting off with 1 tbsp. but feel free to add more as you go along)
8 cups boiling water
1 medium white or red potato, chopped into 1” pieces
1 carrot, cut into 1” rounds
½ pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 2” pieces
½ tsp. salt
Coriander leaves (as garnish, optional)
- Put some water to boil. In the meantime, heat oil in a heavy bottomed pan on medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds, dried red chili, curry leaves, and tiny pinch of asafetida. Once the mustard seeds start sputtering, add the onion. Add a pinch of salt and sauté until the onions are brown, about 3-4 minutes (You can sprinkle a few drops of water if you feel that the onions are dry and may burn).
- Add the tomato, sambhar powder and ½ cup of water. Stir the mixture into a paste. Saute for 3-4 minutes, until the powder has fully dissolved (the texture should be creamy, not grainy).
- Add the rest of the water, red lentils, potatoes, and tamarind concentrate and bring to a simmer.
- Simmer on low heat, uncovered for 20 minutes, until lentils dissolve and the curry thickens. Add salt, taste, and adjust spices as necessary. Periodically check the mixture to make sure its not too dry. Add a bit of water if necessary.
- Add the carrot and simmer for another 5 minutes.
- Add beans and simmer for 5 minutes. Garnish with coriander leaves, if you like.
- Serve with rice.