Vengaya Sambar (Onion Lentil Curry)

Sambar is a dhal and vegetable curry with gravy and its own specific spice mix. It is a staple in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, each state having its own variation of the spice mix. For instance, in Karnataka a small amount of jaggery (molasses) is added, and in Andhra Pradesh the sambar explodes with chillies. Tamil Nadu has a variety of sambars; this is my mother’s recipe to which I have added roasted coconut to enhance the flavour.


Vengaya Sambar (Onion Lentil Curry)

Sambar is a vegetarian curry and is served with several South Indian dishes from plain boiled rice to idli, dosai, and vadais and other meals and snacks at any time of day.

Nutritive Value

Red gram dhal is a very good source of protein, folic acid, and choline. When it is served with cereals the protein of the dhal and the cereal together improve the quality of the total protein. When it is served with idli and dosai, which already have black gram dhal, it becomes a protein-rich meal. I have made it with onion here.  If you make it instead with other vegetables such as broad beans (avarai), brinjal (eggplant), drumstick, and chow chow (cho-cho marrow), they also contribute their nutrients to the sambar.


  • ½ C Red Gram Dhal
  • 1 ½ C whole Sambar Onion (shallots), skin removed
  • 1 small lime size Tamarind
  • 2 sprigs Curry Leaves
  • ¼ tsp Asafoetida Powder
  • ¼ tsp Turmeric Powder
  • ¼ tsp Mustard Seeds
  • 1 T Salt, or to taste
  • 1 T Vegetable Oil
  • 2 C Water as needed

Roast and Powder (see Notes)

  • 5 Dry Chillies (seeds removed)
  • 1 T Coriander Seeds
  • ¼ tsp Fenugreek Seeds
  • ¼ tsp Cumin Seeds
  • ¼ tsp Pepper Corns
  • ½ tsp Rice Grains (raw or parboiled)
  • ½ tsp Black Gram Dhal
  • ½ tsp Red Gram Dhal
  • 1 T Coconut scrapings


  1. Pressure cook the red gram dhal for 15 minutes.
  2. Soak the tamarind in hot water for half an hour. Extract the juice, strain.
  3. Heat the oil in a heavy-based deep saucepan.
  4. Add the mustard seeds; when they crackle add the peeled sambar onion (shallots) and fry on low heat till translucent.
  5. Add 1 cup of water, turmeric and asafoetida powders.
  6. Bring to boil. Lower heat, cover and cook for 5 minutes.
  7. Add the cooked dhal and the salt, stir, bring to boil.
  8. Mix the roasted and powdered ingredients with the tamarind extract.
  9. Add to the dhal mixture and stir. Add sufficient water to arrive at a medium consistency.
  10. Bring to boil, lower heat and cook for 2 minutes.
  11. Add the curry leaves. Remove from heat, keep covered till served.


  1. The actual sambar onion is pink in colour. The dark purple variety of shallot does not lend itself to sambars as it has a very mild flavour.
  2. The success of the sambar relies on the roasting of the spice mix.
  3. The spices should be roasted individually and mildly. As soon as the aroma can be smelt, they should be removed from the heat.
  4. The black gram and red gram dhal should be roasted only for a few seconds. If they are roasted longer, the burnt protein will ruin the flavour of the sambar.
  5. The coconut scrapings should be roasted only till they become dry.
  6. Powder all the spices other than the roasted coconut first. Then add the roasted coconut and continue powdering.
  7. Soaking the tamarind in hot water makes extraction easier. Remember to strain.
  8. The curry leaves are added last to enhance the flavour.



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