In the 1960s and ’70s when English curry-house menus were first printed and laminated, South Indian food hardly got a second look. The strange outcome of this trend has been that many lovers of Indian food have hardly tried classic South Indian dishes such as sambhar, a lentil-based vegetable stew that is eaten daily all the way from Mumbai to Bangalore. Sambhar puts vegetables front and center and surrounds them with sharp, clean flavors like curry leaves, tamarind, tomatoes, and chiles. You’ll only need a little rice or bread with this, and a dollop of yogurt, and you’re off.
NOTE: As tamarind paste varies from brand to brand, add it gradually until it tastes good to you.
Serves 4 as a main course
1¼ cups red lentils
4 tablespoons canola oil
¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1½ teaspoons cumin seeds
¾ teaspoon mustard seeds
12–15 fresh curry leaves
4 banana shallots or other large shallots, finely sliced
¼ medium butternut squash (9 ounces), chopped into 1½-inch cubes
1 medium eggplant (11 ounces), chopped into 1½-inch cubes
4 medium ripe tomatoes, chopped
1¾ teaspoons salt
1½ teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons tamarind paste
1½ teaspoons ground red chile
½ pound green beans, trimmed
Wash the lentils with cold water until the water runs clear, then put into a deep saucepan, cover with three times the amount of water, and bring to a boil. Simmer for 25 minutes, or until soft, scooping off any foam.
Meanwhile, put 1 tablespoon of oil into a wide lidded frying pan and add the fenugreek, coriander, and cumin seeds. Stir-fry for a minute, then take off the heat and grind to a coarse paste with a mortar and pestle.
Put the remaining oil into the frying pan over medium to high heat. When hot, add the mustard seeds and curry leaves, followed closely by the shallots, and cook for around 10 minutes, until the shallots are golden. Then add the diced squash and a couple of tablespoons of water, cover with the lid, and cook for 5 minutes.
Add the eggplant and another couple of tablespoons of water, cover, and cook for another 5 minutes, then add the tomatoes, along with the spices you ground earlier, the salt, sugar, tamarind paste, and ground red chile. Cover again and leave to cook for a further 5 minutes, until the tomatoes have broken down and the squash is tender. Add the lentils to the vegetables (or the other way around, depending on which pan is bigger), then add the green beans and enough water to make a thick, soupy texture, and cook for a final 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the salt, sugar, and tamarind as you wish.
Divide the sambhar into bowls, spoon over some yogurt, and serve with rice.