Ever Heard Of Empty Salna, A Vegetarian Side Gravy?
Image Credit: Dheivegam

The experience of eating set dosais or thick uthappams in tiffin centres around Tamil Nadu is one to behold. Quick service, fresh meals served on banana leaves cut into the size of large tiles; steaming soft idlis, crispy golden medu vadais, and chutneys in every colour imaginable dot your disposable plates as serves whiz past like bolts of lightning. Cut to the evening when dosais and vadais are replaced with robust biryani and raita whose fragrance crosses over across streets where the shop is located. What’s common between both these meals is an underrated side dish that has a gravy-like consistency, called salna.

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Typically a salna is a meat or vegetable curry with lots of spices that is eaten as an accompaniment to many South Indian delicacies. However, what’s most interesting about this specific kind is that the gravy is in essence, ‘empty’; which means that it contains no meat or vegetables but packs a punch of flavour nevertheless. Made with a tomato-base and whole roasted and ground spices, the gravy has a spicy-tangy flavour, that pairs well with almost anything it is poured over. Unlike a kurma which would have meat or a medley of vegetables cooked in a similar gravy, this empty salna tastes best with parotta or idlis – basically, anything that has the capacity to mop it up. In most cases, an empty salna is vegetarian but in the rarity that it isn’t, the likelihood of fish or bone broth would be used to fortify the gravy and have a pronounced taste.



  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 3 large tomatoes, chopped
  • 1.5 tablespoons ginger-garlic paste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ¼ cup fresh coriander, chopped
  • 5-6 sprigs mint leaves
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 2 cloves
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 mace flower
  • 8-10 curry leaves
  • 2 tablespoons sambar powder
  • 1 tablespoon gram flour
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 teaspoon red chilli powder
  • ½ teaspoon garam masala
  • ½ cup grated coconut
  • 6-8 cashews, soaked in warm water
  • 2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Salt, to taste


  • Grind the cashews and coconut into a fine paste with some warm water and set aside. Heat the oil in a large sauce pan and temper the mustard seeds and curry leaves. Once they start to splutter, add the whole spices and allow them to bloom for a minute or two.
  • Add the sliced onions and ginger-garlic paste and cook until the onions have softened considerably. Following this, add in all the spice powders, except the garam masala and combine everything thoroughly.
  • Add the chopped tomatoes and season with a generous pinch of salt. Turn down the heat to a medium low and cook the tomatoes until they turn mushy and release their juices.
  • Cover the pan with a lid and cook until the fat begins to separate and the mixture in the pan turns into a homogenous mush. Add the coriander and mint leaves and mix well.
  • To this mixture, add 4-5 cups of water, along with the coconut paste and simmer for about 15-20 minutes on a low flame to let the spices lose their raw flavour and blend well.
  • Meanwhile, mix the gram flour with a tablespoon of water and mix into the gravy once almost cooked through, to thicken it slightly. Check for seasoning and adjust, if needed. Serve hot with pulao, parotta, idli, dosai, etc.