Tips And Tricks To Ace The Perfect Sambar

Onam, the vibrant harvest festival of Kerala, India, is a celebration deeply rooted in tradition, culture, and culinary excellence. It pays homage to the mythical King Mahabali, whose return to the kingdom is believed to be the cause of the festivities. The heart of Onam lies in its grand feast, the Onam Sadhya, a traditional vegetarian banquet served on banana leaves. Among the myriad dishes that grace this extravagant spread, one stands out as a star—the Kerala Sambar.

Onam is not merely a festival but a cultural extravaganza that unites the people of Kerala in joyous celebration. It spans ten days, with each day holding special significance. Homes are adorned with intricate flower arrangements, known as Pookalam, which are crafted with vibrant flower petals, often forming intricate designs and patterns. These floral carpets symbolise the welcome extended to King Mahabali.

Cultural performances, including traditional dances like Kathakali and Pulikali, add colour and vivacity to the festivities. The snake boat races, known as Vallamkali, are a spectacle to behold, as beautifully decorated longboats compete in thrilling races on Kerala's tranquil backwaters.

Yet, at the heart of Onam is the culinary artistry that brings families and communities together in a gastronomic celebration like no other—the Onam Sadhya.

Onam Sadhya: The Grand Vegetarian Feast

The Onam Sadhya is an elaborate and meticulously prepared vegetarian feast that typically includes over 20 dishes, all served on a fresh green banana leaf. It's a symphony of flavours, textures, and aromas that showcase the rich culinary heritage of Kerala.

The Sadhya is a balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy flavours, with each dish playing a specific role in the gastronomic orchestra. From the crispy banana chips and crunchy pappadam to the soothing curd (yoghurt) and the fiery avial (a mixed vegetable preparation in coconut-based gravy), every element has its place in this culinary masterpiece. And among these delightful dishes, the Kerala Sambar holds a special place.

Kerala Sambar: The Heart of Onam Sadhya

The Kerala Sambar is not just a dish; it's an experience. This flavourful lentil and vegetable stew encapsulates the essence of Kerala cuisine, marrying spices, vegetables, and tamarind to create a burst of flavours that dance on the taste buds.

The Sambar Creation Process:

1. Lentils and Vegetables

The foundation of Kerala Sambar lies in the careful selection of ingredients. Toor dal (pigeon peas) provides the creamy texture and protein base for the sambar. An array of vegetables, including drumsticks, pumpkin, and brinjal, are chosen to complement the lentils. This combination creates a delightful medley of textures and tastes in every spoonful.

2. Sambar Masala

 The soul of Kerala Sambar is its masala. To prepare this aromatic blend, a variety of spices—coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, and black peppercorns—are dry roasted and ground to perfection. This homemade masala adds a distinct and aromatic flavour profile to the sambar. 

3. Tempering

The magic of sambar begins with the tempering process. Coconut oil is heated, and into it goes mustard seeds, curry leaves, dried red chillies, and asafoetida. This tempering infuses the oil with the flavours of the spices, creating a tantalising aroma that permeates the dish.

4. Spice Infusion

Chopped onions are added to the tempering and sautéed until they turn golden brown. Then, diced tomatoes, turmeric powder, red chilli powder, and freshly ground sambar masala join the party. Allowing the spices to cook and release their flavours is a crucial step in creating the complex taste profile of the sambar.

5. The Marriage of Dal and Vegetables

Once the spices have had their say, it's time for the cooked dal and vegetables to join the ensemble. The lentils and vegetables simmer together, absorbing the rich flavours of the spices and masala.

6. Tangy Sweetness

To achieve the perfect balance of tanginess and sweetness, tamarind pulp and a touch of jaggery are added to the sambar. This dynamic duo creates a harmonious blend of flavours that dance on the taste buds. The tangy tamarind balances the sweetness of the jaggery, resulting in a taste that's both complex and satisfying.

7. The Final Touch

A garnish of fresh coriander leaves provides a burst of freshness and colour to the Kerala Sambar. It's the finishing touch that elevates the dish to perfection.

The Kerala Sambar is not just a standalone dish; it's an integral part of the Onam Sadhya experience. The Sadhya is a grand spectacle, where a long row of banana leaves is laid out, each meticulously adorned with various dishes. The Sambar is positioned strategically, serving as the connective thread that ties the flavours and textures of the entire feast together.

As you take your seat and begin the feast, the Kerala Sambar serves as the perfect accompaniment to the fluffy steamed rice, crispy pappadam, and a myriad of side dishes like avial (mixed vegetable curry), thoran (stir-fried vegetables with coconut), and pachadi (yoghurt-based side dish). Each spoonful of sambar offers a symphony of flavours—spicy, tangy, and slightly sweet—making it the ideal complement to the entire Sadhya.

So, if you're looking to celebrate Onam with a traditional touch, don't forget to include the delightful Kerala Sambar in your feast. It's a dish that will surely transport you to the vibrant and flavorful world of Kerala cuisine. Enjoy the festivities, embrace the traditions, and savour every spoonful of this culinary masterpiece.