Friday, September 18, 2009

Sambar

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I didn’t know my grandfather all that well. I only saw him for a couple weeks every four years. My understanding of him was mostly built through observation.

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For this man of purposeful actions, lunch seemed the apex of his day. In the morning, as he spoke to my grandmother about lunch, he gingerly embraced the lip of his tea cup taking efficient sips. After consuming toast redolent of butter and yeast, he carefully gathered up any crumbs depositing them back onto the plate with a flick of the wrist. Perhaps an optimist, despite dustiness or inclemency, he went to work every day with a crisp white shirt and pressed dhoti.

He would return for lunch punctually sometimes with unexpected guests in tow. My grandmother would have spent the morning, probably every morning for decades, puttering around the kitchen preparing. She would move to and fro, looking for lost bowls, shuffling plates around, opening and closing stainless steel containers. When I was there, there was time spent telling me stories, reminding me to be a good girl, and, of course, cajoling me to eat more and drink more milk. My grandmother was a woman for whom efficiency really was a word better left in the dictionary.

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Upon returning, he would take his place at the head of the table joyful about the upcoming meal. When the whole family was there, his son would sit to one side, and the rest of table would fill with grandchildren and son in laws. The many vegetable dishes on the table were all orchestrated by him.  He chose dishes in a way that made you feel welcome; your favorite dishes were always on the menu. For me sambar seemed a constant.  And, then, when everything was served, there was his first taste. That taste was carefully discussed and dissected. The proportions of spice and amount of salt were all noted. Sometimes my grandmother would be summoned with the salt cellar to rectify an overly spicy dish with a pinch more salt. More often, there was praise. “Oh, the bikkand is delicious today…The chutney is just right in terms of spices…The valli is very fresh and the ambat is just perfect today.” For him, food was the center of life; lunch was a hobby and a holiday.

Plans for these lunches began early in the morning. As a child, when jet lag cruelly awoke me with a start in the pitchdark early morning, I would wait for the hall light to turn on. Then I would crawl out of bed and look for my grandparents. My grandfather would instruct quick preparations of warm Bournvita and grilled butter-fried bread for “the child” and then he would sit down to the vegetables.

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According to my child’s eye, my grandfather’s consideration of how each vegetable should be cut seemed to be paramount in his affairs. He would sit on the floor in the narrow hallway just beside the old stone kitchen. Slowly and efficiently, he would draw the vegetables across the blade. Matchstick potatoes would work for upkari but would never be appropriate in sambar. Before engaging in his morning toilet, a day’s worth of vegetables, lovely piles of colors and shapes, would wait for their role in lunch.

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Recipe:
Sambar

(My husband and I followed my mom when she cooked and transcribed her recipe.)

Cook 2/3 cup toor dal in a pressure cooker. (For the pressure cooker novices like me, my mother says when it whistles turn down to simmer for 10 minutes and turn off.)

In another pot, boil 2 cups vegetables. In my mind, pearl onions, potatoes, and eggplant are requisite. Radishes, eggplants, zucchini and carrots can be added. If you are lucky enough to have fresh drumsticks, be happy and add them too.

Add cooked dal and its water to the boiled vegetables that have been drained of all but ½ cup water.

In a cast iron skillet, fry:
one small onion diced.

Add onions to the dal/veg mixture.

In small bowl, combine:
1 tsp tamarind
½ cup water

In the same cast iron skillet, brown:
3 T sambar powder (homemade or store bought)
Pinch asofoetida

Once the sambar powder smells cooked and delicious, add tamarind and water. Put whole mixture into the dal.

Add a small handful of fresh coriander leaves that have been roughly chopped.

Serve with rice and papad or with idli.

I am submitting this recipe to this month's Monthly Mingle:Heirloom, which is being hosted over at Jugalbandi.

24 comments:

girlichef said...

This is just beautifully written. I have tears in my eyes...it is like an excerpt from one of the many wonderful foodie novels I've read over the years. I felt like I was being pulled back in time with you. Thank you for this lovely post...a bowl of Sambar in front of me is the only thing that could make me happier...

Johanna said...

what lovely memories of your grandfather - I am sure that seeing him only every few years meant that you took in every detail when you were there - I bet he looked forward to your visits

Sophie said...

What a sweet story; I love a family story centered around good food. Your grandpa sounds a lot like my hubby. What a scrumptious lunch this would be :).

Cinnamon Girl aka Reeni♥ said...

What a lovely post and a beautiful memory. Thanks for sharing! Your Mom's Sambar looks fantastic!

Joanne said...

This is a beautiful story with a beautiful recipe to go along with it. I felt like I was there with you, feeling what you were feeling while I read it and only wishing that I could be there to taste it. I think you got to the crux of this theme by showing how intrinsically linked food can be to memory and how important it is to share good food with the people you love.

Grace said...

even though you saw very little of your grandfather, i'd wager that you knew him very well! this is a magnificently-written post and i enjoyed it immensely. i've never had sambar, but it looks and sounds like something i'd really enjoy!

Bombay-Bruxelles said...

Beautiful! Would you have a sambar masala recipe??

bee said...

what a beautiful post. it took me to your grandparents' house. thank you.

angela@spinachtiger said...

I love these kind of posts, and so will your children.

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

A beautiful post! That dish looks so fragrant and delicious!

Cheers,

Rosa

Manisha said...

Oh wow! I can see your grandfather in his crisp white clothes!

I find it really interesting that we have a history of men helping their women in the kitchen, with the cutting / chopping / planning etc. yet most women get worked up when their sons help their wives in a similar fashion.

And, I *love* the coconut scraper. It reminds me of the ancient one that we used to have and perhaps still do.

bee said...

there's something for maybelle and her mommy at jugalbandi. congrats!!!

Nags said...

this is a beautiful post :)

MeetaK said...

gorgeous and heartwarming post. thank you for sharing it for the monthly mingle!

Miri said...

This beautiful post reminded me of my grandfather - whom we would see only once a year. But then when my mother passed, he came to stay with us for the next year till the household regained its bearings. Those memories of him with his Santa Claus beard and smeared with holy ash holding court in our living room amid discourses about religion and philosophy will always be with me. Once he died, i never went back to our ancestral house.

Thank you!

lisaiscooking said...

Beautiful memories and beautiful food. Good for you to have transcribed your mother's recipe. Looks delicious!

Soma said...

A beautiful beautiful post. reminds me of my grand dads .. both of them actually, with neat crisp clothes & shoes which always had to be polished & sparkling.. who helped in the kitchen & supervised & enjoyed the meals & took care of everyone's needs in their own special quiet but very "non" expressive ways.

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

Thanks so much for sharing this post. I love the story of your grandfather's lunches! This post really was a joy to read!

5 Star Foodie said...

Beautiful post, thanks for sharing the story! Sambar sounds delicious, I would love to try it!

Mahek said...

hi
beautifully written, i will be printing your page and will give it to my relatives to read, because it has got so much of the earlier goan men who were so much interested in food and the daily menu , i can see a little of so many of my uncles and other relatives who stay in Goa...
I am so happy that i discovered your blog ,KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK....

Yasmeen said...

Awesome post,brought back so many memories.And congrats on the win :)

Anh said...

That fish is so cute!!

high over happy said...

After reading Madhur Jaffrey's memoir, and now this post, I'm wishing I was brought up in an Indian family! What wonderful memories.

Anushruti said...

I really enjoyed reading this post from start to finish. Excellent!