Preparation info

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Lands of the Curry Leaf

Lands of the Curry Leaf

By Peter Kuruvita

Published 2018

  • About

Sambar, a popular soupy lentil curry served with rice, idli or vadai, has become a symbol of Tamil food, but came about by accident, back in the 1600s. The story goes that Sambhaji, the eldest son of the first Maratha ruler Shivaji, one day returned home very hungry, only to find his wife and daughter away. He tried to make himself some rice and dhal, but added some tamarind to his dhal by mistake, giving it an entirely different complexion. There are so many variations to this simple yet very tasty soup, but this is a lovely version to start with.

Preparation 15 minutes + 30 minutes soaking
Cooking 30 minutes


  • 150 g ( oz) tamarind pulp (a lemon-sized ball)
  • 2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 100 g ( oz) diced potato
  • 100 g ( oz) diced carrot
  • 100 g ( oz) diced radish
  • 100 g ( oz) diced eggplant (aubergine)
  • 200 g (7 oz/1 cup) dried split red lentils
  • 40 g ( oz/½ cup) freshly grated coconut
  • 2 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 6–7 dried red chillies, broken in half
  • 2 tablespoons chana dhal
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar (jaggery)
  • 3–4 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
  • 1 fresh curry leaf sprig, leaves picked
  • ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric


Soak the tamarind in 750 ml (26 fl oz/3 cups) warm water for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of the coconut oil in a heavy-based saucepan and cook the onion, garlic and vegetables over medium heat for 5–6 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent too much colouring. Stir in the red lentils and set aside.

In a separate saucepan, heat the remaining coconut oil and add the coconut, cumin seeds, chillies and chana dhal. Fry for a few minutes, or until the coconut starts to brown, then remove from the heat. Using a spice grinder or bullet blender, grind the mixture to a slightly coarse paste with a little water. Set the coconut paste aside.

Squeeze the juice of the soaked tamarind out, into the soaking water. You should now have at least 750 ml (26 fl oz/ 3 cups) of tamarind water; if not, top up with a little more water.

Add the tamarind water to the sautéed vegetables and place over high heat. When the mixture starts boiling, stir in the coconut paste, palm sugar and salt. Allow to boil for 10–15 minutes, or until the soup thickens slightly, stirring now and then. Cook together for a few more minutes, or until the lentils are well combined into the soup. Remove from the heat.

In a small frying pan, heat another 1 teaspoon coconut oil over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds. When they splutter, add the curry leaves and turmeric.

Pour the spices over the soup and serve immediately.