This South Indian Sambar Is Spicy, Tangy, and Veggie-Packed

published Jul 28, 2020
Spinach Huli "Sambar"

Huli is a spicy lentil and vegetable stew served daily in Karnataka homes, usually with rice. This is a quick, one-pot version, made with quick-cooking baby spinach and red lentils.

Serves4

Prep10 minutes

Cook45 minutes to 55 minutes

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Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

Huli is a spicy lentil and vegetable stew served daily in Karnataka homes, usually with rice. Similar stews are prepared throughout South India and referred to as sambar. The dish is flavored with tamarind, coconut, curry leaves, and a spice blend called huli pudi, which you can make at home or buy at an Indian grocer, where it will be labeled as sambar powder. 

This recipe is for my quicker, one-pot version of huli, which is more suitable for weeknights. On days when I’m really rushed I’ll just throw in baby spinach from a clamshell, but if you have more time, you can chop up a bunch of mature spinach, or add more veggies — carrots, potatoes, string beans, daikon, kohlrabi, cabbage, chayote squash, or thin, long eggplants all work well. And though traditionally the stew is made with toor dal (split pigeon peas), I use quicker-cooking red lentils (masoor dal) when I’m short on time.

I’ve included my recipe for huli powder here, which is adapted from my mother’s maternal Aunt Sundru by way of my Auntie Asha. I use it almost every day in my house, whether to flavor huli or some of my vegetable stir-fry dishes. What’s interesting is this “spice blend” is actually made from a good portion of roasted lentils, which makes it rich in protein just by itself. 

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

Spinach Huli "Sambar"

Huli is a spicy lentil and vegetable stew served daily in Karnataka homes, usually with rice. This is a quick, one-pot version, made with quick-cooking baby spinach and red lentils.

Prep time 10 minutes

Cook time 45 minutes to 55 minutes

Serves 4

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons

    fresh, frozen, or dried unsweetened grated or shredded coconut

  • 1 cup

    masoor dal (dried red lentils)

  • 1/2

    medium red onion

  • 1

    dried red chile (such as Guntur Sannam, cayenne, or arbol)

  • 2 tablespoons

    ghee, unsalted butter, or canola oil

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    black mustard seeds

  • Pinch

    asafetida (hing) powder

  • 4 to 5

    fresh curry leaves

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    ground turmeric

  • 5 cups

    water

  • 2 tablespoons

    huli powder (recipe below), or store-bought sambar powder

  • 1 1/4 teaspoons

    kosher salt, plus more as needed

  • 1 teaspoon

    tamarind paste (preferably Tamicon) or concentrate, plus more as needed

  • 2 cups

    packed baby spinach leaves, chopped if desired

  • Coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

  • For serving: rice, plain yogurt, dosa, or achaar (like Brooklyn Delhi)

Instructions

  1. Thaw 2 tablespoons grated frozen coconut, or add a little hot water to 2 tablespoons dried coconut to plump up and rehydrate.

  2. Place 1 cup masoor dal in a fine-mesh strainer and rinse thoroughly under running water; set aside to drain well. Dice 1/2 medium red onion. Break the stem off 1 dried red chile, then break it into a few pieces with your hands.

  3. Heat 2 tablespoons ghee, unsalted butter, or canola oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering or melted. Add in 1 black mustard seed. When it sizzles and pops, add 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds and a pinch of asafetida powder. Immediately cover the pan when the mustard seeds start popping. When the popping starts to subside, reduce the heat to medium-low.

  4. Rub 4 to 5 fresh curry leaves between your fingers a little to release their natural oils and drop them and the dried chile into the pan. Immediately cover the pan, as moisture from curry leaves will cause the oil to spurt. Once the sputtering stops, stir to evenly coat everything with oil and continue to fry for 10 to 15 seconds.

  5. Add the onion and 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric. Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened and translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the lentils and stir to coat in the onion and spices.

  6. Add 5 cups water and bring to a boil, spooning off any foam that comes to the surface. Reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover with a lid and cook until the lentils are falling apart, 25 to 30 minutes.

  7. Add 2 tablespoons huli powder and mix well. Stir in 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt and 1 teaspoon tamarind paste. Bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes.

  8. Add 2 cups baby spinach and cook until wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and season with more kosher salt and tamarind as needed. If the mixture is too thick, add a little bit of water as needed. I like the consistency of my huli to be right in the middle, not too thick and not too thin. Stir in the coconut and simmer for 1 minute more.

  9. Remove from the heat and garnish with chopped cilantro leaves. Serve hot over rice with a dollop of plain yogurt and Brooklyn Delhi achaar, or with dosa.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to 4 days. Mix in a little water to loosen it up when reheating.

Huli "Sambar" Powder

A South Indian spice blend used to flavor huli (or sambar). It's made from a good portion of roasted lentils, which makes it rich in protein just by itself. 

Prep time 5 minutes

Cook time 20 minutes

Makes about 3 cups

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 60

    dried red chiles (such as Guntur Sannam, cayenne, or arbol), or 90 dried Byadgi chiles

  • 3/4 cup

    chana dal (dried split chickpeas)

  • 1/4 cup

    skinned urad dal (dried split matpe beans)

  • 1 1/8 teaspoons

    canola or vegetable oil, divided

  • 2 cups

    dried coriander seeds

  • 4

    (3-inch) cinnamon sticks

  • 1 tablespoon

    fenugreek seeds

  • 1 cup

    loosely packed fresh curry leaves

  • 1/2 cup

    dried unsweetened shredded coconut

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    ground turmeric

Instructions

  1. Break off the stems from 60 dried red chiles or 90 dried Byadgi chiles.

  2. Heat a large cast iron frying pan or heavy frying pan over medium-low heat. Add in 3/4 cup chana dal and toast, stirring constantly, until it turns reddish, golden-brown, and smells nutty, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl. Add 1/4 cup urad dal to the pan and repeat toasting. Transfer to the bowl of chana dal.

  3. Add 1/2 teaspoon of the canola oil and 2 cups coriander seeds to the pan. Toast, stirring often, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with the dals.

  4. Add 1/4 teaspoon of the oil and the chiles to the pan. Toast until fragrant and your nose starts to tickle, less than a minute. Transfer to the bowl with the dals.

  5. Add 1/8 teaspoon of the oil to the pan and 4 cinnamon sticks to the pan. Toast until fragrant, less than a minute. Transfer to the bowl with the dals.

  6. Add 1/8 teaspoon of oil to the pan and 1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds to the pan. Toast until golden brown they give off nutty aroma, about 1 minute. Transfer to the bowl with the dals.

  7. Add the remaining 1/8 teaspoon oil to the pan and 1 cup fresh curry leaves to the pan. Toast, stirring constantly, until they become dried and start to curl up, about 1-2 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with the dals.

  8. Add 1/2 cup dried coconut to the pan. Cook, stirring constantly until it just warms up and becomes fragrant, less than a minute. Transfer to the bowl with the dals.

  9. Let all the spices cool until room temperature. Grind them to a powder in a spice grinder or Vitamix into a coarse powder. Stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric.

Recipe Notes

Chiles: I prefer using Byadgi chiles, which are available at Indian grocery stores and online, because they have a subtle spiciness to them and their deep red color provides a nice hue to the powder. You can also use a combination of dried red chiles and Byadgi variety. It’s always best to err on the side of less chile because you can always roast and grind more chili peppers to add to your powder if you want more heat.

Storage: Store in an airtight container or glass jar at room temperature for a few months, or longer in the refrigerator.

Chitra Agrawal’s Weeknight South Indian Cooking Guide

This recipe is part of our weeknight South Indian cooking guide, designed to bring the vibrant and colorful cuisine of South India into your kitchen. Head to the intro piece to read more from Chitra, and check out all of the recipes below.

1 / 5
How to Make Dosa from Scratch
A step-by-step guide to making dosa at home, including a from-scratch dosa batter and instructions for how to cook it.
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Spinach Huli "Sambar"
Huli is a spicy lentil and vegetable stew served daily in Karnataka homes, usually with rice. This is a quick, one-pot version, made with baby spinach and red lentils.
Go to Recipe
3 / 5
Potato Palya
This is the special potato palya or potato stir-fry that is filled into masala dosa, though it can also be eaten on its own. The potatoes are spicy and tangy and cooked with a little butter until they are soft enough to melt in your mouth.
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4 / 5
Cilantro Coconut Chutney
Coconut chutney is the quintessential South Indian condiment. It's usually served with idlis, dosas, or fried appetizers, but is equally delicious on a sandwich or just mixed with hot rice.
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Chitra's Chitranna (Shredded Cabbage, Lime & Peanut Rice)
A variation of nimbekai chitranna, made with sautéed shredded red cabbage and carrots tossed with cooked turmeric rice, fried peanuts, lime juice and chopped cilantro.
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Credit: Kitchn