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Sadya, South Indian Dishes, Vegetarian Dishes

Ulli (Small Onion) Sambar – Understanding Life And Living

Just a few months back, a sprightly  girl invited us to take part in a workshop conducted by the youth wing of  an organisation.The session, interspersed with narrations, was interactive, thought-provoking and brilliantly executed. The dynamism, sincerity and dedication of the youth, motivated us and injected fresh insights and energy into our lives in more ways than one. Through practical demonstrations  they shed light on various aspects of understanding life and living,one of them being to rank the magnitude of  importance each one of us should allocate to the various roles in our lives be it daughter, wife, sister, mother,mother-in-law, grandmother, aunt, friend, employer, customer………..Every role is equally important and our dedication should be one hundred percent to each and every one of them. The lunch that followed was wholesome and tasty and we went back home with more clarity, maturity and our spirits a lot lighter. 

Sambar is a must-have for lunch in most South Indian homes. The making of sambar varies slightly according to the region, the place, the family and perhaps the individual too – but the basics remain the same.Like I use coriander leaves as garnish but my daughter prefers not to. Cooked toor dal (pigeon pea) is simmered with vegetables, onions & tamarind, spiced with sambar podi  and seasoned with mustard, red chilli & curry leaves..


Serves – 6              Preparation Time – 20 mins.           Cooking Time – 30 mins.


  1. Toor dal -1 cup -150 gm
  2. Small onion -125 gm cleaned (approx. 1 cup)
  3. Tamarind – size of a lemon
  4. Sambar powder- 2 tsp(I use Eastern Sambar powder)
  5. Green chilly -1 (slit into two)
  6. Tomato -1 (quartered)
  7. Turmeric powder – 1 tsp
  8. Mustard -1 tsp
  9. Fenugreek seeds -1/2 tsp
  10. Red chilly-1 (cut in two)
  11. Curry leaves -1 stalk
  12. Coriander leaves -1 tbsp, cleaned and cut fine (optional)
  13. Asafoetida (hing) -1/4 tsp
  14. Jaggery (grated ) – 1 pinch
  15. Salt – as required

* – In place of Sambar powder, you can use a mix of

  • one tbsp coriander powder,
  • 1 tsp red chilly powder,
  • 1/4 tsp roasted fenugreek powder,
  • 1/4 tsp hing powder and
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric powder.

Dilute this mixture in a tsp of water and use.


  • Soak tamarind in one cup of hot water for 10 minutes and extract juice.
  • Cook toor dal in a pressure cooker with 3 cups of water and turmeric powder for about 6 minutes.
  • Heat oil in a heavy bottomed pan, season with mustard.When it  pops, add fenugreek seeds, red chilly, curry leaves,stir then add onions and green chilly.Saute for 3 minutes
  • Add tomato, asafoetida  and sambar podi (diluted in 1 tbsp of water), Saute well.Add tamarind pulp/juice and 1 cup water in the pan.Stir well.
  •  Allow to simmer till onions are cooked.
  • Add cooked dal and jaggery to the pan, stir well . Allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Garnish with coriander leaves. Serve hot with rice, idli or dosa.


  • Toor dal has to be well-cooked but not mushy.
  • Sambar can be cooked with different vegetables like ladies finger, brinjal, drumstick, cucumber, onions, ash gourd, snake gourd and/or potato. Each vegetable gives its own distinctive taste. For me, a combination of drumsticks and small onions gives a near perfect flavour. Drumstick is cooked full, cut into 2″ long pieces. About 6 small onions, 1 big onion and a drumstick may be used for drumstick sambar.
  • Any oil or ghee can be used to season.
  • Jaggery is added to balance the taste.
  • Coconut goes well with sambar. Roast 1/2 cup coconut till light brown. Grind and add with sambar powder.
  • On the spot, I make sambar  paste with coriander seeds -1 tbsp, red chilly -3 nos (more if you wish it hotter), fenugreek seeds- 1/2 tsp,small onions – 3 or 4, curry leaves – a few.In very little oil roast the above,take off heat, add hing powder – 1/4 tsp and turmeric powder -1/2 tsp, and grind it to a paste. 

Quicktip If honey crystallizes, place the bottle in a pan of warm water.

Do You KnowLegend has it that about 400 years ago,  the Maratha ruler Shahuji was ruling Tanjore.  His favorite dish was amti with kokum. Since kokum was not locally available, the curry was made with the local tamarind pulp, when his cousin Sambhaji was a guest at his palace. So the dish with toor dal, vegetable,spices and tamarind pulp was named after Sambhaji and thus was born Sambar.

Quick snack – Melt chocolate over water bath.Coat cut fruits with this chocolate syrup to make it palatable to the children.


About Paddy

When I married and came to Bangalore, it was a real ‘Pensioners’ Paradise.’ The climate was as today’s generation would say – ‘Awesome’. It was cool and pleasant throughout the year. My parents cautioned me to keep warm and have given me the loveliest Kashmir shawls, which I treasure to this day. Since I could not distinguish between rice and dal, cooking was an uphill task. I had a cook from Kerala, but the cold weather did not suit her and in a month’s time, she went back. Looking back, I have come a long way now… Cooking for me has metamorphosed from a daily routine of making edible and nutritious food for my family to an exciting journey of creativity by experimenting with different flavors and ingredients. To me, food is not only for nourishment and sustenance. Its taste and flavors take us back to our good times too. Food is nostalgia and comfort. It brings home our culture. Food is a treat and nourishment for the soul too. I dedicate this blog to my parents, who instilled in me a strong sense of ethics and discipline, and whose affection, love and support gives me strength in this journey of life. I feel the need of today’s generation, who come away from their homes and crave for home cooked food. To you too, I dedicate this blog, where I will share the recipes that I have learnt and grown to love over the years.


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