Sambar Spiced Indian Lentil Soup is named such because of a fabulous toasted spice blend. I absolutely adore the variety and complexity of spices in Indian food. Thus, if I was put in the difficult position of having to declare a single country for my favorite cuisine, it would have to be India. Of course it helps that the ingredients and style of cooking in the different regions of India vary so widely. Indeed, it’s a misnomer to say that Indian cuisine is a singular thing.
For example sambar, the spice blend, and soup by the same name, is a South Indian specialty. That being said, there is some pretty fun controversy about its origins. I came across varied opinions on details, but apparently sambar soup started out as a dish called amti from Maharashtra in Western India. It just so happens the original recipe, made with moong dal and sour kokum, was the ruling king’s favorite 400 hundred years ago.
Intrigued? Well, the story goes one day the royal kitchen was out of kokum and moong dal. So by necessity, tamarind and toor dal were introduced as substitutions. Luckily, the first modified amti recipe was a big hit with the ruling king, Sambhaji. In fact, it was so well received it went on to be named after him. Thus, thereafter it was called sambar.
Whatever its origins, I think this Indian Lentil Soup with fresh vegetables and homemade spice blend is incredible. Do you have any jars in your cupboard of sambar masala made from scratch? If not, I think making the sambar spice mix for this recipe will entice you to make other homemade seasonings. It goes without saying that freshly toasted and ground spices make a world of difference. Plus, they make wonderful gifts to share with friends.
Perhaps you are wondering now what type of lentil gives this Indian soup its substance. The pulse chosen to carry these spices is toor dal. Are you familiar with it? Depending on where you live or shop, it may go by several other names. Toovar dal, tuvar dal, tur dal, arhar dal, and split pigeon peas all refer to the same lentil used for sambar. Toor dal has a mild and distinctive nutty flavor on its own. It cooks quickly, and its mellow texture is a welcome base for splendid seasonings.
Now you know the two basic elements for sambar. However, you’ll want to consider fresh vegetables to add at the end and complete your sensational soup. You’ll be happy to know this part is flexible. You can use any quick-cooking fresh produce you have on hand. Of course your Sambar Spiced Indian Lentil Soup will be over the top special if you include some traditional moringa “drumsticks”. Finally, I hope you can obtain some fresh curry leaves as well. Sizzle them in ghee with whole spices and garnish your soup for the ultimate bowl of sambar.
Sambar Spiced Indian Lentil Soup
Homemade Sambar Powder
Sambar Lentil Soup
- 1 cup toor dal, (pigeon peas)
- 4 cups water, divided
- 1 tsp. plant-based ghee or butter, optional but recommended
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1 1/2 cups seeded diced tomatoes, packed
- 2 tsp. sambar powder, preferably homemade
- 1 tsp. turmeric
- 1/4 tsp. asafoetida, optional
- 1 tsp. seeded diced jalapeno
- 1 tsp. red chili powder, more or less to taste
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1 TB tamarind paste, more or less to taste
- 1 cup quick cooking vegetables
Tempering For Garnish
- 4 TB plant-based ghee or butter, optional
- 1 tsp. coriander seed
- 1 tsp. cumin seed
- 2 tsp. black mustard seeds
- 4 TB fresh curry leaves
- 2-4 small seeded and halved fresh red chilis, to taste
Homemade Sambar Powder
- Toast chana dal and toor dal together in a dry skillet over medium-low heat until aroma is released and dal is lightly browned. Remove and set aside in a bowl.
- Place coriander and fenugreek seed in skillet. Toast while stirring until seeds begin to crackle. Add to bowl with toasted dals.
- Place black peppercorn, cumin seed and curry leaves in skillet. Stir and toast until curry leaves dry and curl. Add to bowl with other toasted spices.
- Place red chilis, turmeric power, and asafoetida if using, in skillet. Toast until chilis are pliable. Add to bowl with all the other spices. Cool completely to room temperature.
- Place spice mixture in a blender or grinder and process to a uniform powder. Transfer to a jar and store in cupboard for a month, or freeze for 3 months.
Sambar Lentil Soup
- Soak dal 4 hours at room temperature or overnight in refrigerator.
- Heat ghee in a soup pot. Add onions and cook until softening.
- Add tomatoes, sambar powder, turmeric, asafoetida, jalapeno, red chili and salt to onions. Cook until tomato breaks down and mixture mashes together.
- Rinse and drain dal.
- Add 3 cups of water and soaked dal to pot with tomatoes and spices. Bring to a boil and cook over medium low heat until dal is very soft, about 30 minutes. Carefully pour soup into a blender. Cover securely. Start blender on lowest speed and process until smooth.
- Return soup to pot and add remaining water. Add vegetables and tamarind paste. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Cook gently until vegetables are done. Add water if needed to make a thin, but not watery soup. Taste and add more salt or tamarind if desired.
- Heat ghee in a small skillet. Add mustard seed, cumin seed, curry leaves and fresh chili. Stir and cook until seeds crackle.
Garnish and Serve Soup
- Ladle soup into bowls and drizzle tempering over top. Serve with steamed idli, dosa or cooked rice.