Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sambar, Over The Rainbow...



It's spicy. It's salty. It's sour. It's everywhere.

For the uninitiated, sambar is a kind of spicy gravy made of toor dal, vegetables, and tamarind. It is served as an accompaniment at nearly every meal, and it's an extremely important part of the South Indian vegetarian diet. It's hard for a non-Indian to imagine not only the infinite and subtle variations on it's preparation, but also the fierce debate that ensues amongst aficionados about whose style of preparation is the best. Every man in South India has a very strong opinion about how this dish should be made, and who makes it. Many will go out of their way to steer you to a place where the sambar is invariably described as the "best in all of India", and it's surprising how often their favourite version of this dietary staple resembles their mother's. Much like Italian men speaking wistfully of Mama's Sunday gravy with a tear in their eye, many will tell you that their mother makes the best version, and most wives have the good sense to agree that their mother-in-law's sambar is undeniably the best. When men speak of it, drool forms in puddles, and their eyes roll back in their heads, like Homer Simpson recalling a double pork chop marinated in beer. Well, almost...

It's long been a goal of mine to learn to make the perfect sambar. Ever since I first tasted this magnificent concoction in the 1980's at the long gone and oft lamented Noor Mahal on Fraser Street in Vancouver, learning to make this has been my heart's desire. The Noor Mahal version was excellent, at least in memory, and the first time I tasted it I was hooked. It is the legume equivalent of crack. All rich with creamy dal, tangy with sour tamarind, just enough salt, and several interesting vegetables. Finished off with hot oil redolent of curry leaves, red chili, and black mustard seed, sambar is a stew to satisfy the soul. When we moved to India, this urge to learn to make a good sambar was still lurking in the back of my mind like a paparazzo in Madonna's backyard. Out of sight, but never far away. Then we met Stanley and Gigi, our landlords and next door neighbours. The game was afoot.

For months now, we have been frequently blessed by the mysterious delivery of yummy dishes at all hours of the day. Stanley has actually appeared at our door as early as 8 AM with a steamer full of delicious idli cakes, a large bowl of Gigi's wonderful sambar, and a smaller dish of fresh made coconut chutney. From the first taste, I knew that I had found Sambar Nirvana, that mysterious state of being first described in the ancient Vedas by Swami Bhaktidefuture. I was instantly transported through space and time back to the 1980's on Fraser Street, all skin and bones with a badly gelled haircut, chewing on a chicken palak dosa that I could scarcely afford, but drowned in that wonderful sambar. Sensing that I was close to achieving a life's goal, I thought of what nefarious plans I would have to hatch in order to get Gigi to teach me how to make this heavenly concoction. I assumed that it would be harder to pry out of her than removing the proverbial rifle from Charleton Heston's cold, dead hands. My evil plots and schemes turned out to be completely unnecessary. She kindly offered to teach us how to make it. Not only that, she offered to let us film her doing it in her kitchen, along with her recipe for idli. Indian hospitality. Go figure...

By this time, we had already shot a few episodes with Gigi in her kitchen next door. She really is an awesome cook, and a very gracious hostess. She somehow makes cooking for a small army look very easy, even as she is turned out in a spectacular silk sari and festooned with gold jewelry. Our normal routine had been to show up with all of our gear around 11AM, cook and film for a couple of hours, and then have a lunch that was usually epic in it's scope. So when idli and sambar day arrived, I assumed that it was business as usual. I was wrong. We were roused at 8:30 AM by a loud and persistent knock on the door. I grabbed the nearest lungi and hastily wrapped it about my waist. With my ventilated nether regions barely covered, I rushed shirtless to open the door. There was Stanley. "You are late", he said, in his characteristically verbose way. He turned and left for his house next door. Then it dawned on me: idli and sambar was breakfast food, and not lunch. Not an auspicious beginning.

Fortunately, when we arrived next door a scant 5 minutes later, there did not seem to be a trace of ill will. Gigi got right to work as the camera rolled. First, she put together the batter for the idli for the benefit of the camera. This wasn't the batter that she ended up using though, as idli batter should really stand for several hours to give it a slight fermentation tang before being used. It's basically the same batter as is used in a dosa. Rice, a bit of urad dal, and water are blended up and left to sit. The batter is poured into little molds, and then steamed for ten minutes or so. She also made a lovely coconut chutney from fresh coconut, a touch of ginger, and some shallot. This was tempered with coconut oil, fresh curry leaves, black mustard seeds, and dried red chili. Then it was on to the sambar...

So what is this thing that inspires such strong opinions? Sambar is a study in contradictions, very much like India itself. It's at once simple to make, yet very complex and varied in flavour. How can an ingredient list so basic yield something so complicated and rewarding? The technique of the cook is everything. At the risk of stating the obvious, not only is the way each ingredient is treated crucial to the outcome, but the actual order in which the ingredients is combined is also critical to the final taste. For vegetables, Gigi's version has eggplant, winter melon, okra, potato, and tomato in it. She spices it with ground red chili, turmeric, fenugreek seeds, and ground coriander. A critical component is an interesting Indian vegetable called "drumstick". It's a long green pod about a foot long, and it looks suspiciously like a big green drum stick. If Bob Marley was a drummer, this is what he would have played. The toor dal is cooked until somewhat mushy, and then water, spices, and vegetables are added. The particular order eludes me at the moment, but suffice to say that the detailed recipe will appear after we return home and log all the tapes.

Once everything is cooked, it's time for the final tempering with the holy trinity of black mustard seed, dried red chili, and fresh curry leaves briefly fried in coconut oil. It's all topped off with a healthy hit of fresh cilantro. We all sat down and had a hearty, if not belated, breakfast of fresh steamed idlis, fresh coconut chutney, and the sambar of my dreams. To say that it was good would be a wee bit of an understatement. It is the cycle of desire, action, and fulfillment that keeps us all spinning on this earthly karmic gerbil wheel. This tasty breakfast was truly the fulfillment of a long standing desire. With this desire out of the way, perhaps sainthood is not far away...

It's spicy. It's salty. It's sour. It's right next door, baby.....
Sambar on Foodista

6 comments:

Split Rock Ranch said...

Laurel: OMG - 7 months in India with the entire family?! You and your family are very brave. I can barely manage a trip down the mountain to Colorado Springs for a shopping trip without feeling overwhelmed and ready for the solitude of our ranch. I will be following your adventures via your blog. Your fibers will be on their way to BC tomorrow. Take care! B

Rob Bailey said...

Fiber is an important part of any well balanced diet!

Laurel Bailey said...

Welcome to the mayhem Brenda! Ignore the wise-cracking husband (I do)...

Murray A said...

You two are amazing descriptive scribes. I can almost smell the scents of that kitchen wafting from next door. I think I'm going to have to move to Miller's Landing before you move back to be closer to YOUR kitchen! Have a great weekend!

thumbbook said...

Oh,Im so delighted to come across your blog!Reading your post tickles my imagination and I can almost imagine being there with you ladies in the kitchen!Hope you wont mind but I'd love to guide Foodista readers to your site, just add this little widget here to this post and it's all set to go, Thanks! -Alisa@Foodista.com

Edison said...

I'm sure her cooking is the best because I have tasted it and fortunately she is my aunt ;)