Vegetable sambar with coconut and tamarind

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Back in the mists of time when the menus of English curry houses were first writ and laminated, South Indian food did not get a look in.*

Most dishes at your local Indian restaurant are from the North of India. The state of Punjab is where the likes of chana masala, butter chicken and matter paneer come from, while the dhansak originated from the Parsis (Indian Persians based in the North West of India) the rogan josh is from Kashmir and the korma, koftas and kebabs from the imperial kitchens of the Muslim Mughal Empire.

Many of these dishes are rich: heavy meat dishes, cooked long and slow with clarified butter and cream laced with nuts, sugar and warming spices. It’s the kind of food which compliments the imagined splendour of the Raj and the British weather, where for over six months of the year, we all wear jumpers.

It’s very different to the food of South India: the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu whose cuisines are little known over here.

South Indian food puts fish and vegetables up front and centre, surrounding them with sharp and clean flavours from the use of curry leaves, tamarind, tomatoes, chillies and fresh coconut milk and coconut oil.

One of the most popular dishes from the South of India is this nourishing sambar: a sweet and sour yellow lentil stew packed with lip-smacking tamarind, coconut and a small holding’s worth of vegetables.

Recipe notes: you’ll need a spice grinder for this recipe

Vegetable Sambar with Coconut and Tamarind

Serves 4

  • 150g toor dal or split yellow lentils
  • 4 tablespoons rapeseed oil
  • ½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 1 ½ teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 4 dried kasmiri chillies
  • 2 tablespoons dessicated coconut
  • 2 teaspoons mustard seeds
  • 12-15 curry leaves
  • 4 banana shallots, finely diced
  • 450g vegetables (200g butternut squash, diced. 100g snake beans (or drumsticks or green beans) cut into 5cm pieces 150g aubergine, diced)
  • 3 medium sized tomatoes, sliced
  • 1 ¾ teaspoons salt
  • 1 ½ teaspoons sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons tamarind paste

Put the lentils into a deep saucepan and wash under cold water until the water runs clear, then cover with four times the amount of water and bring to the boil. Simmer for around 35 mins or until soft, straining off any foam from the lentils if it arises.

While the dal is boiling, heat one tablespoon of oil in a wide lidded frying pan and add the chillies, coriander, fenugreek and cumin. Stir-fry for a minute or until the coriander seeds start turn golden, then add the coconut for a minute last minute, then take off the heat and grind to a paste.

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Wipe the frying pan clean and heat three tablespoons of oil over a medium to high heat. When hot, add the mustard seeds and curry leaves, followed closely by the shallots. Cook until translucent and browning (around 15 minutes) then add the diced squash, cover for 5 minutes then add the aubergine and stir fry for 5 minutes on a high heat. Now add the tomatoes, a little water (say 50ml), the spice paste you made earlier, salt, sugar and tamarind paste. Cover with a lid and leave to cook for around 5 minutes.

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When the tomatoes are soft and have broken down and the lentils cooked, transfer the vegetable mixture to the lentils, add the beans and heat together for another 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the salt, sugar and tamarind as you wish. Serve with steaming basmati rice.

*yes yes, Madras curry but no – that was invented in here in Britain.