But since I liked it so much, it was a matter of time till I finally found the right way.....or rather I found out what I liked.
I like it with onions and a tomato in it, lots of coriander;not too thick but at the same time with enough dal to make it satisfying. Not too sour but the tang should be there.
.........and most of all I love eating the vegetables in it - small onions (shallots/chinna vengayam),drumsticks and radish (mullangi) are the best. In that order.
Most people don't really like radish, let alone in a sambar - but for some reason I love that those white discs take on the flavour of the sambar completely and when you bite into them - they just dissolve in your mouth.
The sambar prepared on festival days? that's awesome too ; the mixed vegetables (usually an odd number- 5 or 7) gives this a whole new flavour.
Idlis in our house are almost never made without sambar to accompany them. There's something about the rice and protein mix I think which just completes this meal for us and makes it so satisfying.
I make mini idlis sometimes and it's pure heaven to drown them in the sambar and then eat them.
I know people who mash the idlis into sambar - enuff said!
And I remember people who would walk into Anand Bhavan in Mumbai on a Sunday morning with tiffin carriers and pack 3-4 huge dabbas of "samburr" for about 4 plates of idlis.
Well, I'm sure they still exist....as do the sambar haters ;). So let's agree to disagree and try to figure out it's origins.
I have been trying for sometime now, to find out how this has become such a staple of South Indian food (in all its myriad forms, be it Pulungari, Huli, Pulusu or Pitlai). There don't seem to be many explanations for it (atleast in the limited research I have done).
The basic premise is that sambar in it's present day form is a recent addition to Tamil cuisine - maybe about the 19th century. Chillies and tomatoes came to India quite late in the day, and the original cuisine in Southern India used pepper and curd/mango in their preparations. Tur dal was not a South Indian pulse, it was moong dal (green gram) which was predominantly used.
I found this article by Dr Padmini Natarajan - The Story of Sambar - which speaks of the Maratha king Sambhoji who ruled over Thanjavur (Tanjore). Like a true son of the soil, he liked his amti, a lentil based dish which uses kokum - a fruit, the pulp of which is used as a souring agent in Maharashtrian and Konkani cuisine. However, there was no kokum available one day and since he used to like cooking, he substituted it with tamarind pulp. That when paired with the tur dal created a new dish - named Sambar after him.
Though it sounds like an urban legend, she goes on with a fascinating (to nerds like me atleast) discussion on the various versions it takes in the four Southern states and how it has evolved.
Well, its present day avatar is certainly something we can be proud of....
Mullangi Sambar (Radish Sambar)
Tuvar Dal (Arhar,tuvaram paruppu,split pigeon pea lentil) - 3/4 cup or 150gm - cooked with 4 cups water and 1/4 tsp of turmeric, in the pressure cooker till mushy, about 3 whistles and 5 minutes on a low flame.
Tamarind extract - about 1 cup from a lime sized ball soaked in warm water for half an hour
Radish - 1 medium, cut into thin discs and cooked separately, till just tender
Sambar powder - 2 heaped tsps
Chilli powder - 1 tsp (optional - the sambar powder I am currently using isn't too spicy since it has more dal in it than store bought ones)
Coriander(dhania)powder - 1 tsp
Onions - 1 medium sliced
Tomato - 1 medium chopped into 4-6 pieces
Coriander leaves - 1/4 cup chopped
Talimpu or tempering:
Mustard seeds (rai/kadugu) - 1 tsp
Urad dal - 1/2 tsp
Asafoetida powder (hing)- pinch
Curry leaves - 2 tbsp washed
Oil - 1 tbsp
Salt to taste
1. Heat oil in a wok or kadai, add the mustard and wait till it splutters, then add the urad dal, the hing and when the urad turns brown, add the curry leaves.
2. Add the onions and saute till soft - 2-3 minutes, then add the tamarind extract diluted with 250 -300ml water, bring to boil and let simmer covered for about 15 minutes.The raw smell of tamarind should have disappeared.
3. Add the tomatoes, cooked radish, sambar powder, chilli powder, coriander powder and salt and let simmer for another 8-10 minutes.
4. In the meanwhile, whisk the cooked tur dal till smooth; add to the simmering sambar and bring to boil. Simmer for another 5 minutes till the flavours come together, add the chopped coriander and remove from flame.
Serve with idlis,dosais or rice.