Typical Tamil Tastes

The Tamil word for powder is podi, and this South Indian spice blend is usually labeled “sambar powder” (or sambaar or sambhar) in Indian grocery stores. A classic sambar blend starts with dried chiles and coriander seeds and adds cumin, black pepper, and various dals, or dry-roasted dried lentils—typically chana, toor, or urad dal; a more complicated mix might also include fenugreek, black mustard seeds, and/or turmeric. Some versions add sweeter spices like nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon. There are, of course, simpler versions with far fewer ingredients. Fragrant, spicy sambar powder flavors much of the vegetarian fare of the region, especially soups, dals, and other lentil and vegetable dishes; because of the dried lentils it contains, it also acts as a thickening agent. Sambar is also the name of a lentil and vegetable soup eaten all over South India with rice or dosas and idlis; sambar powder is always used to season it, and that may be where the name of the blend originated.