I have always cooked with approximation, rather than with exact measures. I’m quite experimental even with ingredients in traditional recipes and like to add or subtract items to make it my own.
Earlier this year, my mother, who’s in Delhi, underwent knee surgery in both legs. I stay in Chennai with my hubby, who was sweet enough to persuade me to stay with her for the entire 2 months that it required for her to get back to some normalcy. Most of my married girlfriends went, “Wow! How lucky for you to be able to spend such a long time with your mother!”
It was, indeed fun — and a lot of work — for those two months. The best part was being able to cook for my family that has not had much opportunity to sample my cooking. But it was quite a task to live up to my grandmother’s (mother’s ma) exacting standards in the kitchen. She’s not the type who’ll fuss too much over what and how you cook, but if you do not conform to her level of expectations, she’ll gently announce that she’ll cook the next day. And you feel really bad when your 76-year-old grandma insists on doing what ideally you should be!
It was a great learning experience too. I learnt a lot about ingredients and how not to go overboard with spices and the knack of using them in right quantities to get the desired flavour. I also learnt the art of keeping things simple to get fabulous results. She had her own take on most everyday items cooked in a typical iyer household. Thanks to her upbringing in Pune and married life in Bombay for nearly 4 decades with Maharashtrian and Iyengar neighbours, her cooking is a blend of all these various styles.
Typical araithu-vitta sambhar/puli-kootu has never been my strength. I was telling paati one day about how i never get it right. She asked me to list out spices i ground for the podi. When i was through telling her, she announced with an air of finality: “You’ve left of mendhiam (fenugreek), which is why your sambhar doesn’t turn out up to the mark.”
“But paati, i leave it out because Ram doesn’t like the bitter flavour it imparts,” I rallied. She patiently went on to explain that fenugreek seeds balance out the rest of the flavours in the spice mix and that if roast, ground and combined in the right ratio with the rest, it adds a flavour to the final product that cannot be substituted by anything else. I just meekly nodded my head. Usually ready to wax eloquent on pasta sauces and vinaigrettes, here i was faced with instructions in a subject that i was not well-educated on!
On later reflection, I realised that use of fenugreek also makes a world of difference to idli-dosa batter. Addition of just a spoonful of this wonder ingredient ensures a light fluffy fermented batter. It is also said to be cooling for the body and keep gastric problems at bay.
The manner in which paati got me to prepare the freshly ground sambhar powder that day, I don’t think I could go horribly wrong with it ever again. I made a capsicum-drumstick-pumpkin sambhar that day, and it turned out fabulous. Of course, it helped that paati was standing right behind me with ready instructions on spice measures and what to do next.
Here’s how I prepared the podi that day.
Fresh-ground Sambhar Powder
(The quantities specified here will be enough for making sambhar for 4 people)
Kadala paruppu (chana dal/gram dal) – 1 tbsp
Kothamalli vara (Dhania/Dry coriander seeds) – 4 tbsp
Red chillies – 5-6
Fenugreek seeds – less than 1 tsp
Peringayam podi (Hing) – a big pinch
Coconut (or dry kopra) – 2-4 tbsp (optional)
Oil – 1 tbsp
Heat oil in kadhai (wok) and add chana dal, red chillies and the peringayam
You can leave out the oil and simply dry roast the ingredients too
(It smells heavenly at this stage. I feel nothing can beat the smell of roasting peringayam other than spluttering green chillies!)
A minute later add the dhania and methi seeds
If you’re a rebel, add a couple of black peppercorns (not any more) when paati isn’t looking
Switch off the flame a couple of minutes later and remove kadhai from stove, otherwise the spices will burn.
The chillies must turn bright red, dal should be golden-orange and the fenugreek seeds, deep golden-brown
Once cool, dry grind the spices along with coconut
Proceed to make sambhar as always. Add this podi to the boiling sambhar during the last five minutes
*You could also grind one tomato and/or sautéed onion along with the spices and add this paste five-ten minutes before the sambhar is done boiling
*If you’re perpetually unsure if oil is hot enough to plonk in the spices, add a pinch of mustard seeds first like I do. Oil’s ready once these start spluttering
There are many versions of what goes into sambhar podi. Some add jeera, urad dal and black peppercorns too. But fresh ground sambhar tastes best when made with these 4 ingredients — Chana dal, methi seeds, fenugreek seeds and red chillies.