Arachhu Vitta Sambar ~ A Safe Method of Tempering with Leela Krishnan

by on April 15, 2017

There is easy grace and contentment when she cooks. A certain calm.
She placed the pan on the stove and added the oil. Without waiting for it to heat up, she added the mustard seeds. She immediately covered the pan with a lid. When she heard the spluttering of the mustard, she removed the lid and added the urad dal. Then she closed the lid again. After a few seconds, she added the curry leaves, red chillies and later the asafoetida.
Whatever the order of the ingredients for the different recipes, she uses the lid in this manner while tempering (baghaar). For me, it was the defining feature of her cooking. There was no fumbling or hurry in her movements even though there are so many ingredients to be added in the tempering. She was diligent and, at the same time, relaxed. Apparently, a spluttering mustard seed had hit the eyeball of one of her relatives and damaged the eye. Ever since, she follows this safer procedure while cooking. After meeting Leela Krishnan, 78, I have created a small space next to my gas stove where I stack a few pan lids within easy reach. For cooking with extensive tempering, this is ideal. It also keeps my cooking range cleaner, free of the spluttering mustard and oil so typical of Indian cooking.
There is the tangible aspect of the cooking—the ingredients, recipe, and food tips. Those are easy to learn and write about. But the real taste resides in the intangible. With Leelaji, I could not help but admire the easy spirituality she has infused into her cooking and every other aspect of her life.
When I finally tasted the sambar, potato podimas and mor kozhumbu with steamed rice, the question just burst out of me: “But honestly, what makes these simple, everyday preparations so supremely delicious?” Leelaji smiled gently. “Because I prepared it for my first child—whom I call Baba and you know as God.”

Here is a family favourite recipe shared by Leelaji, made with freshly ground spices.
Tamilian Sambar


  • Tur dal: 1 cup
  • Mixed vegetables (capsicum, red pumpkin and radish): 1 cup each; large chunks
  • Tomato: 1; large
  • Green chillies: 2; slit
  • Oil: 2 tbsp
  • Mustard seeds: ¼ tsp
  • Turmeric powder: ¼ pinch
  • Tamarind paste: 1 tbsp
  • Curry leaves: 1 sprig
  • Salt to taste

For the paste

  • Coconut: 3 tbsp
  • Coriander seeds: 2 tbsp
  • Bengal gram (chana dal): 1 tbsp
  • Fenugreek seeds: 1 tsp
  • Dry red chillies: 6-8
  • Asafoetida powder: a pinch


  1. Cook the dal in a pressure cooker along with the chopped tomato, a pinch of turmeric powder and 2 slit green chillies.
  2. Churn well and set aside.
  3. Dry-roast the ingredients for the paste (except the coconut). Add the coconut in the end and switch off the flame.
  4. Grind into a thick paste using very little water. Set aside.
  5. Heat the oil in a rice cooker (or pan) and add the mustard seeds. As they splutter, add the chopped vegetables and curry leaves.
  6. Add 2 cups water and a pinch of turmeric powder.
  7. Cover and cook until the vegetables turn tender.
  8. Add the tamarind paste and cook for a few minutes.
  9. Add the ground paste and salt and cook for 5-7 minutes.
  10. Add the cooked tur dal and cook for 2-3 minutes.
  11. Add a cup of water if the sambar is too thick.
  12. Switch off the flame.
  13. Garnish with coriander leaves.
  14. Serve with steamed rice and a side-dish of your choice.

Photo Courtesy: Harmony Magazine

Part-1 of this post is the interview with Leela Krishnan, a Palakkad Tamil Iyer residing in Chennai.
First published in ‘Heart to Hearth’ – a column in Harmony Celebrate Age, a magazine about silvers.


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