Dalma And Sambar: Regional Dishes Celebrating Lentils & Veggies
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Take some lentils and a variety of seasonal vegetables and cook them together to make a nutritious bowl of comfort food—when you read these words, what is the final dish that comes to your mind? Is it the festive Odia Dalma or the quintessential South Indian Sambar? Even though these two dishes come from different regional cuisines of India, the similarities between Dalma and Sambar are quite striking. Here is everything you need to know about the Odia Dalma and the South Indian Sambhar. 

The first thing you need to know is what these dishes are all about. So, here goes. 

Dalma is typically prepared using pigeon peas (arhar dal) or split peas (moong dal) as the base along with vegetables like raw banana, pumpkin, brinjal, drumsticks, and others. It is seasoned with mustard oil, cumin seeds, ginger, and other spices. The dish is slow-cooked to bring out the flavors and served with steamed rice. Over the years, Dalma has become a staple dish in Odia households and is prepared on various occasions, festivals, and daily meals. It is considered a comfort food that is both nutritious and satisfying. 

Sambar is an integral part of South Indian cuisine and is consumed widely across India today. It is typically prepared using a combination of lentils (such as arhar dal or moong dal), vegetables (such as drumsticks, pumpkin, brinjal, and okra), tamarind pulp, and a blend of spices like sambar powder. The dish is seasoned with a tempering of mustard seeds, curry leaves, and other aromatic ingredients. Sambar is served with rice, idli, dosa, vada across India and the world. 

Video Credit: YouTube/Gita's Kitchen

The Origins Of Two Lentil & Veggie Dishes

The exact origins of both Dalma and Sambar are unknown, but as it goes with most ancient Indian dishes—which these two really are—there are many references to be found in mythology and folklore.  

Dalma is said to have its roots in the Jagannath Temple in Puri and is offered even today as a part of the Mahaprasad for Lord Jagannath. Legend has it that Dalma was born as a result of a divine revelation to a cook in the temple's kitchen. According to the story, the cook was faced with a dilemma of how to prepare a dish that could satisfy the taste buds of Lord Jagannath and his sibling deities, Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra. The cook came up with the idea of combining lentils with a variety of vegetables available in the region. The dish was cooked using the freshest ingredients and flavored with aromatic spices, resulting in a nutritious and flavorful dish known as Dalma. 

Sambar, it is widely held, originated in Tamil Nadu—though this is debated and the varieties of Sambar available across Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra, Telangana and Tamil Nadu proves this. One theory suggests that Sambar was inspired by a dish called Kuzhambu or Kolambu in Tamil, which is a tangy and spicy gravy-based preparation. Kuzhambu traditionally includes tamarind, lentils, and a mix of spices. Over time, it is believed that the recipe for Kuzhambu evolved, incorporating local ingredients and flavors to create the distinct Sambar we know today. 

Similarities And Minute Differences Between Dalma And Sambar 

Regardless of their origins, both Dalma and Sambar are so widely consumed in Odisha and across the South Indian states that no meal in these regions is complete without them. This highlights the regional cultural significance of Dalma and Sambar. The remarkable thing here is that apart from a few key differences, Dalma and Sambar are quite similar. Here’s how: 

1. The lentil base of both Dalma and Sambar is made with arhar dal or moong dal. Though there is no dearth of the varieties of lentils available in India, both these dishes rely on the same lentil varieties for their recipes. 

2. The vegetables used in both Dalma and Sambar are not only seasonal but also similar. Both dishes are incomplete without drumsticks, for example. 

3. Coconut is used to make both Dalma and Sambar. While it is used as a norm in the former, there are many varieties of Sambar which are also cooked with freshly grated coconut. 

But when it comes to the differences between Dalma and Sambar, we realize that these are more subtle and not easily recognizable by most people. Here’s how: 

1. While Dalma is a balanced dish with equal notes of sweet-sour-spicy, Sambar has a distinct tangy and spicy flavour that comes from the generous use of tamarind. In fact, adding a bit of grated jaggery to Dalma is the norm, but no sweetener is ever added to Sambar. 

2. Though the vegetables used are similar, the difference lies in the use of starchy roots. While Sambar relies on onions and fresh greens like beans and okra apart from brinjals and drumsticks, Dalma incorporates veggies like potatoes, raw bananas and even yams which are never seen in a Sambar. 

3. Commercially sold across India and the world, Sambar is more well known for its thin and soupy gravy. Dalma, on the other hand, resides in that comfortable spot between watery and mushy with a thicker consistency. 

A Variety Of Dalma And Sambhar To Choose From 

Now that we have explored the similarities and differences between Dalma and Sambar, let us note another key feature both these regional Indian dishes share. Depending on the season and the preferences of the cook, both Dalma and Sambhar change their form and are therefore available in many varieties. 

One of the most well-known and revered varieties of Dalma is the Badia Dalma which is served as a Mahaprasad at the Jagannath Temple in Puri. This one is so thick that it is said that if you throw it at a wall, the Dalma will stick to it and not drip. Another version is the Habisa Dalma which is cooked specifically in the Hindu month of Kartik without any onion, garlic and turmeric. 

When it comes to Sambar, the varieties are more dependent on the vegetables available than anything else. For example, the Vendhaya Keerai Sambar is made with fenugreek leaves, Vendakkai Sambar is made with okra, Manjal Sambar is made with yellow pumpkin, and Palakottai Sambar is made with jackfruit seeds. This apart, Manga Sambar is a summer-specific Sambar that is made with raw mangoes as the souring agent instead of tamarind. 

Despite all these varieties, the essence of Dalma and Sambar lies in the ability of both dishes to nourish the body as well as the soul. And that is the basic reason why both these dishes from Indian regional cuisines are considered to be comfort foods.