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Sambar powder (Recipe: pan-seared ahi with mango)


I have an overprotective spam filter.

Most of the time, I'm grateful; it insulates me from people who want to enhance (or reduce) my maleness, sell me fake watches or software, or do things in Russian that I'm glad I can't understand.

Sometimes -- like my dad, who used to wait at the door in his bathrobe, hoping to scare away the high school boys who wanted to kiss me goodnight after a date -- my spam filter goes too far.

It almost "protected" me from Venkat Balasubramani and his wonderful sambar powder.

One of the promises I've made for the new year is to learn more about the complexity and rich variety of Indian cooking, so when Venkat, an attorney in Seattle, wrote to offer a free sample of the product he and his mother market, I was eager to try it. First, though, I had to read up about sambar.

Popular in South Indian cooking, sambar is a kind of legume or vegetable stew or soup, and also the name of the spice mix used to season it. Sambar often is served over rice, or with idli. As with garam masala, each family creates its own special spice blend. Lalitha Balasubramani, an accomplished cook, classical musician, and the mother half of Nataraja Spices, combines red chiles, coriander, fenugreek, yellow split peas, chickpeas, asafoetida, turmeric and curry leaves.

Note that the first ingredient listed is chile, which explains the heat that explodes at the back of your tongue when you first taste the sambar powder. No, this is not for the timid palate. Even if you are a heat lover, please go slowly, adding just a bit at a time to your cauliflower, sambar with okra or beets or lentils, or lovely eggs in tamarind sauce.

I'm happy to report that there's more to this spice blend than heat; the depth of flavor kicks up many simple dishes, like a baked potato or scrambled eggs. Or, make a paste with sambar powder, a pinch of salt, and some vegetable oil, rub it on fish (halibut and swordfish work well) or eggplant, and grill or pan-roast.

I'm adding this product to The Perfect Pantry because it's super-spicy (I do love the hot stuff), delicious, addictive, and available online. When you visit the web site (where you also can buy a chili rub that looks quite interesting), you'll find more than a dozen of Lalitha and Venkat's recipes. You'll have the joy of knowing you are supporting a family business rooted in the traditional cooking of South India, and you'll be ready to jump-start your own exploration of Indian cuisine with this ingredient on your spice rack.

Pan-seared ahi with mango

Venkat enclosed this recipe with the sambar powder, and it looked so good that I had to try a version of it right away. No question it is spicy, with the addition of Thai chiles. You can substitute a jalapeño, or omit the fresh chile altogether, for a milder version. I've adapted the recipe ever so slightly. Serves 2.


1/2 tsp sambar powder, or less to taste
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
2 chopped Thai chiles, optional
8 oz ahi tuna, swordfish, salmon or other steak fish
1 mango, sliced
2 tsp vegetable oil


In a glass bowl or baking dish large enough to hold the fish, mix sambar powder and soy sauce. Stir in the chiles. Add fish and sliced mango to the dish and marinate for at least 3 hours or overnight. When you're ready to cook, heat 1 teaspoon of oil in a frying pan over high heat. Add the fish to the pan, and sear for 2-3 minutes on each side, until browned, but not overcooked. Remove fish to a platter, and add the mangoes to the pan (add another teaspoon of oil if needed). Cook until lightly browned, and add to the fish. Serve over basmati or brown rice.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Pineapple shrimp curry
Curried squash, apple and pear soup
Braised fish, Tunisian style
Egg curry


DidlogoblogThis just in: Monte Peterson, test kitchen baker at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, VT, hosted a Drop In & Decorate party to benefit a local Rotary Club dinner for area residents who would otherwise be alone at the holidays. King Arthur employees and their families baked, decorated and delivered 500 cookies. 

Planning a Drop In & Decorate event? Please let me know (lydia AT ninecooks DOT com) so we can share the fun.

To learn more about Drop In & Decorate Cookies for Donation, including how to host your own party, visit www.ninecooks.com; then stop in at A Veggie Venture, 37 Days, Culinary Types, Nikas Culinaria, Homesick Texan, Food Blogga, The Inadvertent Gardener, Jaden's Steamy Kitchen, La Mia Cucina, One Hot Stove, The Cooking Adventures of Chef Paz, French Kitchen in America, Veronica's Test Kitchen, Kelly the Culinarian, shawnkenney.com, Thyme for Cooking: The Blog, Chew on That, Nook & Pantry, Cookthink, Tea & Cookies, Mele Cotte, Cream Puffs in Venice, startcooking.com, Shazam in the Kitchen, The Family Quilt, The Daily Tiffin, Sticky, Gooey, Creamy, Chewy, The Budget Bambino, Baking and Books, What's for Lunch, Honey?, The Pink Hobart and Fun and Food.

Thank you, Slashfood and BlogHer. Thank you, Chow.com and Goodyblog and Woman's Day.

"I love Drop In & Decorate for the gathering of the community. To see old and new friends gathered around a table of cookies with icing in hand brings a smile to my face every year!" Jennifer, volunteer

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


I've never heard of that spice...sounds interesting.

Never had it before but my curiosity is picked! I bet the dish was delicious with it. Glad you liked our decorated cookies, they want to do it again soon...will do that outside given the state of my curtains after the twins' tornado!!

Sambar powder! It is worth its weight in gold. Steamed rice with sambar sustains me through winter. The recipe you have made is a very intriguing and new way of using sambar powder!

I tend to be a bit of a wimp when it comes to really spicey food, so I would have to "proceed with caution" but sambar powder sounds fascinating for it's list of ingredients and the gorgeous color. My sister-in-law has taught me a bit about Indian cooking, and I think she would love this. Happy Holidays, Lydia!

Great post, and it does sound like wonderful stuff. I'm a bit of a lightweight when it comes with spicy, so I'm glad you gave a warning.

Sounds right up my ally. Specially like the sweet(mango) & hot with the tuna.
Spam is so wacked but I'm so glad you didn't miss Venkat. This looks very interesting.

Did you say, "Mango"? I'm all over it!

LOL! Your father sounds so cute. ;-)


Hello there,

I followed the link you have added to my okra sambar recipe.

This readymade powder looks like wonderful stuff going by the vibrant color, and nice recipe there.

I also read your write-up on sambar powder. It's surprising to read that Sambar mentioned as a legume. India definitely has hundreds of legumes and lentils, but Sambar is not one of them. Like you've mentioned in second line, sambar is purely a generic name for vegetable rich, toor dal preparation.

Hope you don’t mind my pointing this out.

Now that is an unique way to use sambar powder! Love the idea of this with the swordfish.

Peabody, this was new to me too, but I absolutely fell in love with it. And there's always room in my pantry for more hot and spicy things.

Tartelette, this is really a wonderful spice blend -- but very hot! So glad you had fun with cookies. I should probably confess that at my own Drop In & Decorate I have a minimum age of 10...for just the reasons you've discovered! Those pastry bags also make good "weapons" for little boys! But oh so much fun.

Nupur, your blog will be one of my main sources of great recipes as I gain more experience with sambar powder.

TW, thank you, and happy holidays to you. Perhaps your sister-in-law will share a recipe that uses sambar powder?

Kalyn, this one really does have a kick, but in small amounts it is quite lovely.

MyKitchen, I can understand my spam filter going a bit overboard, but every now and then I find something wonderful in the spam folder. The moral of the story is, "check your spam folder before you trash it".

Paz, my father was quite a character! Though a very handsome man, he would also take out his dentures when greeting my boyfriends at the door. He thought he looked scary; I thought he looked goofy!

Indira, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. I'm always happy to learn new things from my readers, especially as I am a novice when it comes to Indian cooking. I have read and seen many recipes for sambar that contain toor dal, which are legumes, and vegetables, together in a kind of soup or stew. That is what I was trying to say.

Meeta, the web site for Nataraja Spices has many nontraditional recipes that use sambar powder. I'm going to have fun trying them!

Oh fun! I have been thinking about Indian a lot lately too. Keep us posted on what you learn! (Isn't it weird the things that get caught in the spam filters?)

Did your Dad really do that? How funny!

Thank you for the warm welcome, Lydia!

I re-read, and looks like I have spoken in haste.:)

I also want to learn more about Indian cooking--and the color of that lovely spice is entrancing. I might put it on my face, as blusher, as well as eat it! :)

Sounds almost like Sambal! Hmmmm....
Have a blessed Christmas!

You know, I'm wondering if I tasted this in various dishes when I was in India last April. I must have, right?? Sounds delicious!

Christine, I'm so grateful for wonderful Indian food blogs and a few great cookbooks in my library. I'm looking forward to delving into Indian cooking in the coming year.

Meg, he did -- but I always warned the boys ahead of time!

Indira, I'm always glad to have input and to learn new things!

Sher, this would make some hot and spicy blush!!! The color is seductive, isn't it?

Tigerfish, I send holiday greetings to you, too.

Dana, this is one of those spice blends that, like garam masala, will taste more strongly of one spice or another, depending on who's making it. After I learn how to use it, I just might start mixing my own. Did you bring home some wonderful recipe ideas from India?

Lucky you to get a new spice! And if you ever get those spam filters figured out... I hate my overprotective French internet provider but I can do nothing other than remember to go on to their site once a week and go through the trash.....
And it makes my feel so....icky ;-)

I ADORE sambar, especially with idli and and dosa (with the coconut chutney).

To me sambar is a specific thing, the soup. It can be hard to get used to at first but then you become addicted.

Its spasmotically hot but not like wasabi which will choke you up. Its also a hot that can build up over the meal. This is why I like to have the plain idli and the cooling masala dosa and coconut chutney.

No matter what, a good sambar should make you sweat but a good sweat!

Merry Christmas, Lydia. I hope that you and your family will have a wonderful day and also best wishes for 2008.

xx Nora

p/s: i love sambar!

Lydia, just the color is a gift. But the recipe sounds lovely. I wish I got "spam" like that! I mostly get bank scam and porno e-mails...

On a cheerier note, Merry Christmas to you, Lydia! I am ever so grateful for all that you teach me through your wonderful blog.


Katie, sometimes I look through the spam folder and I can't tell what's not spam, but I'm glad I took a chance on Venkat's email or I'd never have discovered this wonderful sambar powder.

Nika, I know exactly what you mean by a good sweat -- that's how I know my palate has been awakened!

Nora, thank you so much, and wishing you a wonderful holiday, too.

Mimi, the color is luscious -- I don't think my photo does it justice, either. And thanks for your kind words -- I am learning a lot about Paris, and Wisconsin, from you!

I love sambar and idli. I have never thought to use sambar powder on fish! Merry Christmas, Lydia!

Hmm, now that I have a stand mixer and an actual kitchen, maybe I should start some cooking!

Veron, the Nataraja Spices web site has many ideas for non-traditional ways of using sambar powder. Take a look! Happy holidays to you, too.

Kelly, yes indeed, take that new Kitchenaid out for a spin!


Great post - this is definitely one of my favorite dishes.

Someone mentioned that sambar sounds like sambal - I think they must have common origins. SE Asian cooking is fairly similar to South Indian cooking in some interesting ways. (I'm sure someone has written about how tracing the similarities in cooking can fill in gaps in the cultural/anthropoligical timelime.)

If anyone else is interested in trying out a sample, email me using the contact info on our website and I'll send you out a sample.

Happy holidays to all!

I love the idea of the Drop In & Decorate parties. I'm definitely going to get my family to do that next year and figure out where to "give back", like maybe our grandmother's nursing home.

Venkat, thanks for the offer to send samples of your sambar powder. Pantry readers, please do try this!

Glenna, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. Drop In & Decorate parties are fun at any time of year, and donating to your grandmother's nursing home sounds like a wonderful way to get started.

look at that gorgeous color! WOW, recipe sounds magnifiscent!

Aria, the color is positively seductive! You should definitely write to Venkat and ask for a sample. I think you'll fall in love with it.

We usually have Sambar with Rice and it is one of the best dish. You can have dosa or idli with Sambar. It is really tasty.

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