Drumsticks from Patel Brothers for Homemade Sambar

A friend from South India once gave me a recipe for sambar, a dhal, or lentil, dish that is commonly eaten with dosas, idlis, or rice. He had adapted the recipe to use mostly ingredients available in American grocery stores, though I still had to find a store with a large ethnic foods section for the tamarind (which is popular in Latin American cooking as well as Indian). His version used yams to add variety to the dhal. Now that I am in Queens and have the very large Indian grocer Patel Brothers near my house, though, I have attempted a recipe using instead drumsticks, which are large, somewhat intimidating bean pods. The recipe comes from Mangoes & Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels through the Great Subcontinent.

The primary ingredient is toor dhal, is native to South India and is an ancient food. It provides the protein in sambar, and sambar, like other dhal dishes, is usually served with a cereal-based food (like rice). The proteins in cereals complement the proteins in pulses such as dhal, and long experiences seems to have discovered the fact that eating these together provides a healthy mix of amino acids. Dosas and idlis, both made with mixtures of rice and dhal, similarly combine complementary proteins. (See Achaya, The Story of Our Food, for the history of toor dhal.)

Sambar is a relatively simple, forgiving dish, especially if you opt (as I do) for tamarind concentrate instead of laboriously preparing a tamarind extract from tamarind pods (as I used to do). You simply bring your dhal to a boil with turmeric and let it simmer until it becomes soupy. In the meantime, cook black mustard seeds, peppers, fenugreek seeds, and curry leaves in oil until the seeds pop. Then you add the tamarind and boil. Cut the drumsticks into less intimidating pieces and add them to the boiling liquid. Finally, you combine everything in a big pot and cook long enough to combine flavors.

The result of the recipe in Mangoes & Curry Leaves was tasty, but very thin. The drumsticks were a revelation for me. One eats them like artichokes, and, surprisingly, they taste like artichokes! I am not sure, but possibly artichokes would be a cheaper alternative. The drumsticks seemed to have taken up the spices better than the dhal, so perhaps one needs to cook the combined ingredients for longer than the book’s recommendation of ten minutes. It seems to have been easier for me to get satisfactory results with yams, which gave the sambar substance and took up the spices wonderfully, but I don’t regret trying the drumsticks, which are very tasty.

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