Pumpkin sambar is a hearty spicy and sweet lentil stew that gets its depth from the moong dal, heat from warm spices, and sweetness from simmered cubes of pumpkin.
What is sambar?
Sambar is not a soup or a stew but its consistency rests in between the two. It gets its thickness and body from cooked lentils which keep a hungry belly full for hours. Sambar has heat from freshly ground sambar podi or powder, which is a spice blend with warm aromatic spices like coriander, cumin, and chili peppers. It is a rich dish balanced by its tang from tamarind water. Last but not least, this recipe for pumpkin sambar has depth from softened chunks of pumpkin that soak in the sambar-y goodness while kissing the stew with their subtle squash-y sweetness.
What to eat sambar with
Let me just say that my love for sambar runs deep. There are two factions in my family. We are divided between the chutney clique and the sambar squad! Those in each group prefer, or rather require, that their dish be present at South Indian breakfast spreads or at dinners.
As a member of the sambar squad myself, I love dunking crispy onion rava dosa into this spicy and tangy lentil-based soup. Fluffy sourdough discard uttapams also pair well with sambar. When dipped in, they become saturated with warm sweet and spicy goodness. Last but not least, the classic thing to do is to ladle sambar over fluffy basmati rice and mix them together for a cozy winter weeknight meal.
Dal to use for sambar
Traditionally, sambar is made from toor dal which is a hearty lentil variety. However, you can use toor dal, moong dal, or masoor dal for sambar. This recipe opts to use moong dal as it is a thin lentil variety that cooks fairly easily compared to its toor dal alternative which requires soaking. This blog post goes into details about the different varieties of dal and their use cases. For those who don't want to stock up on a pantry full of dal, moong dal is a versatile one that is sure worth the pantry space and can be easily found online or at Indian grocery stores.
Moong dal can easily be cooked on the stovetop, pressure cooker, or instant pot, making it a candidate adaptable to your cooking preferences. Check out this recipe for my simple stovetop moong dal recipe which you can eat on its own ladled over basmati rice or as a base component for this hearty sambar.
Homemade sambar podi (powder) makes a difference
Having a homemade sambar podi separates a great sambar from a good one. Don't get me wrong, when in a pinch, I will buy some sambar powder online or at Indian stores, but I love crafting my own podi.
One reason homemade sambar masala or powder makes a difference is because it is much fresher than the ones sitting on the shelves. As soon as the spices are ground, they are exposed to the natural elements which make them deteriorate faster. I usually make a large batch of sambar powder and use it within 6 months for a really vibrant sambar.
The other great thing about making sambar powder is that you can customize it to your heart's desire. I have a great sambar powder recipe that you can use as a jumping off point, but I highly encourage you to change the recipe based on your palate. For example, if your kids prefer food less spicy, reduce the amount of chilis, or if you like a more velvety sambar, increase the amount of rice.
How to cut a pumpkin
This recipe is for a pumpkin sambar and more specifically an orange pumpkin sambar. There is another variety of pumpkin sambar that called vellai poosanikai sambar or white pumpkin sambar which uses winter melon.
This sambar uses cubed pumpkin, which can be intimidating because pumpkins are a hearty squash that can be difficult to cut. Here is a walk through on how to cut a pumpkin into cubes:
- Poke small holes in the pumpkin and place in the microwave for 2-3 minutes. This will help soften the pumpkin skin and make it easier to peel off.
- Place the pumpkin on a stable cutting board and cut in half from the stem down or vertically.
- Scoop out all the insides of the pumpkin. I like to save the pumpkin seeds and toast with spices for extra crunch.
- Use a paring knife or a vegetable peeler to peel the exterior skin off of the pumpkin.
- Cut each half again to create four pieces and cut each quarter into 1 inch half moons.
- Cut each half moon into 1 inch cubes.
Sambar varieties without pumpkin
I love using pumpkin for this recipe because it becomes so tender and soft and provides a nice, sweet counterbalance to the spices in this lentil stew. However, if peeling and cutting pumpkin is intimidating or it's not the season for pumpkin, here are things with the same flavor profile that you can substitute instead.
- Butternut Squash - I know that butternut squash is as difficult to cut as pumpkin; however, many stores sell pre-cut butternut squash cubes which you can use instead. Butternut squash has the same sweet and hearty body that pumpkin provides for a great fall stew.
- Delicata Squash - Another squash that is super tasty in this recipe and which is way more approachable when it comes to cutting. You can even leave the skin on with this squash variety.
- Sweet Potatoes - Sweet potatoes are such a hearty addition to sambar that mimic that sweet flavor of pumpkin and are a great substitute.
Making tamarind water
Sambar is such a great, hearty, cold-weather stew that gets its brightness from tamarind. Tamarind is a sweet and sour fruit that is often sold in concentrates or in a dried pulp form. For really fresh tasting sambar I opt to make homemade tamarind water which is nothing but rehydrating tamarind pulp in warm water for 3-5 minutes. You can also opt for small amount substitutes like tamarind pulp as well as lemon juice for a sambar without tamarind. Checkout this blog post to learn more about substitutes for tamarind.
Frequently Asked Questions
Butternut squash, delicata squash, and sweet potatoes are great alternatives for pumpkin in sambar.
Yes, you can make sambar without tamarind. Simply substitute lemon juice for tamarind. You can read more about the substitution quantities here.
Traditionally, toor dal is used for sambar. However, I prefer using moong dal or masoor dal as it is cooks faster than toor dal. You can learn more about the different varieties of dal here.
No, white pumpkin, which is also called winter melon, is different from the orange pumpkin, which has a more tender and soft flesh.
No, don't substitute pumpkin puree for whole pumpkin. It will be a way sweeter stew that won't have the balance of sweet and heat that sambar has. Instead, try substituting butternut squash or sweet potatoes.