It’s almost a given that you cannot go to a Tamil home without being invited to stay for a meal. Tamilians love to feed as much as they love to eat, and when we go to Chennai on our visits back to India it is not unusual for us to have two lunches, two dinners, and umpteen snacks, all in a single day, as we make the rounds of our relatives’ homes.
When we lived in Bombay, we were not above exploiting all this hospitality. The mother of one of our friends, Malathy, was a great cook. Luckily our home was not far from Malathy’s, and whenever we were craving a great homecooked Tamil meal Desi and I would just drop in for a visit, sure that we’d be well fed.
While almost any meal you’d eat in a Tamil home would be special, we were never happier than when we were served Vengaya Sambar or Onion Sambar, a delicious dal made with tiny red onions. This dish, one of Desi’s favorites, fast became one of my favorites too because it is just so delicious. It was also one of the first types of sambar I learned to cook when I started to putter around the kitchen.
Many years — and hundreds of sambars later– I want to share with you this classic dish beloved in every home kitchen in Chennai. My version is made with fresh ground sambar masala that takes just minutes to put together. The red pearl onions (chinna vengayam in Tamil) are key to this dish because of their unique flavor. If you can’t easily find them in your grocery store don’t be tempted to substitute with the more commonly available white pearl onions because you just won’t get the same flavor. Red pearl onions are sold both fresh or frozen at Indian grocery stores and buy the fresh ones if possible because while the frozen onions are lower on labor (you don’t have to peel them), they can sometimes be chewy. If you absolutely cannot find red pearl onions, I’d advise buying shallots instead and cutting them into small pieces.
Vengaya Sambar tastes best poured over some hot boiled rice with a side of crispy potato curry. And don’t forget to toast up some poppadums!
- 1 cup tuvar dal or split pigeon peas
- 1 tbsp of tamarind extract mixed with 1 cup of water. Alternately, if you're using tamarind pods, soak a 1-inch ball of the pods in warm water for 15 minutes, then extract the flavor by crushing the pods with your fingers. Discard the solids and reserve the liquid portion.
- ½ tsp turmeric
- 3 tsp vegetable oil
- 2 tbsp coriander seeds
- 2 dry red chillies
- 1 tbsp chana dal or bengal gram dal
- ¼ tsp dry fenugreek seeds (methi)
- 2 cups red pearl onions, ends trimmed and papery skins peeled. Tamil cooks sometimes soak the onions overnight which makes it easier to slip the skins off.
- 1 sprig of curry leaves (about 12 individual leaves)
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- A generous pinch of hing or asafetida
- Salt to taste
- Mix the lentils and turmeric, add water and cook until tender in a pressure cooker. Or cover the peas with an inch of water in a pot and bring to a boil, then slap on a lid, lower to simmer, and boil for 30-45 minutes or until the peas are tender enough to mash. Add more water if needed as they cook.
- Prepare the ground masala by heating 1 tsp of oil. Add to it the coriander seeds, chana dal, fenugreek seeds and chillies and saute until the coriander seeds and dal turn a few shades darker and are lightly golden-brown. Remove to a blender, add enough water to keep the blades moving, and process to a smooth paste.
- Heat 1 tsp of the oil, add the pearl onions and stir-fry until the start to turn golden. Add the tamarind extract and let the mixture cook about 8 minutes.
- Add the ground masala and stir well to mix. Add the cooked tuvar dal and bring everything to a boil.
- Lower the heat to a simmer, add salt to taste, and let the sambar cook for 10 minutes so all the flavors have a chance to meld together.
- To temper the sambar-- an important flavor-building step-- heat the last teaspoon of oil in a small saucepan and add the mustard seeds. When they crackle, add the asafetida and curry leaves. Fry for a few seconds, turn off the heat, and pour over the sambar. Mix well.