If you have been reading this blog regularly, you know by now that I have yet to meet a soup that I don’t enjoy. This South Indian lentil and vegetable soup is no exception and always conjures up a wonderful travel memory for me.
I’ll tell you the story.
My husband and I were fortunate to travel widely. India–beautiful, exotic and often exasperating– was one of our favorite destinations.
On one of our trips there, one of our stops was in Madras (now Chennai). We arrived very late at night after a harrowing flight from Calcutta on Indian Airlines. Advertised as an easy two-hour trip, our trip had taken a soul-crushing 10 hours.
Once at our hotel, we wearily arranged to have a room service breakfast and fell into the bed exhausted.
When the breakfast cart was wheeled into our room the next morning, rather than eggs, toast and whatever, our cart carried a steaming tureen of spicy coconut-flecked lentil soup accompanied by pungent steamed rice cakes. There was also a small bowl of a coconut-cilantro-jalapeno chutney that could knock your socks off if this weren’t breakfast and your socks hadn’t been flung into some deep dark corner under the bed.
This was our lucky day! Room service had gotten our breakfast order mixed up,
Any moral dilemma we might have entertained about eating another guest’s breakfast quickly evaporated as the aroma of the lentil soup filled our room and our imaginations. It wasn’t our place to tell anyone. Right? Right.
As the room service waiter served our breakfast, he ladled the spicy soup over the steamed rice cakes and then offered the bowl of chutney as a condiment. Dixon and I exchanged conspiratorial glances. Clearly, we weren’t in Kansas anymore–not even Delhi. Foodie paradise. That’s where we were.
Later, we learned that our breakfast entree was called idli (the rice cakes) and sambar (the stew-like soup) and was a widely-loved breakfast in India’s steamy south. There were even restaurants, like The New Woodlands in Madras, that specialized in making the “lighter than a pavlova” rice cakes that accompany this tasty lentil soup.
Here is a stock photo from the Internet of what an idli looks like. White. Pillowy. Wonderful.
Later that week, we were driven farther south towards Tiruchirappalli and on to Cochin in what was then India’s version of the Model T car, the ambassador.
The ambassador car is a story in itself. In India’s controlled economy before the 1990s, the ambassador was pretty much the only car you saw on the road.
In production by Hindustan Motors from 1958 until 2014, the ambassador’s design was based on the British Morris Oxford car. The simplicity of the design appealed to India’s fledgling auto industry so much that they kept the car pretty much the same over the fifty-six years it was produced. The car you bought in 1958 looked pretty much the same as the car you bought in 2014.
Although it’s repair record was appalling, there were waiting lists to buy the car that stretched to as much as eight years. Inevitably, jokes abounded about the car: “The only thing that doesn’t make a sound in an Ambassador is the horn!”
The car understandably insinuated itself into popular Indian literature, too. For example, H.R.F. Keating, in his wonderful Inspector Ghote series, always has the rumpled Bombay detective tooling around in a beat up ambassador. I’ve always wondered which came first–Inspector Ghote or Peter Falk’s Colombo.
During the remainder of our stay in South India, we made a point of ordering any number of variations on that first revelatory bowl of idli and sambar. Some sambars were more spicy hot. Some had more vegetables. Some idlis had cashews and spices embedded in them like jewels. It was all good.
Once, when we asked our driver to stop and let us out to walk and take photographs of the rice paddy-strewn countryside, a group of workers in the rice fields engaged him in an animated conversation.There was a lot of pointing and gesturing and giggling. Obviously, they were talking about us. When I asked Krishna, our driver, about the conversation, he told me that the workers wanted to know what we ate for breakfast. Was it rice, they asked hopefully…rice with sambar? By then, we could honestly say (through our guide) that we did indeed have sambar and rice for breakfast and enjoyed it very much. Our answer brought smiles and nods of approval all around.
I’ve always remembered that day. On that bright Indian morning, on the edge of a rice paddy and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the workers in that rice field had felt a need to find some small human connection with the foreign strangers in the ambassador. And then, there it was. We ate the same breakfast–a bowl of hot soup and a rice cake.
I can’t help but wonder whether, in the fractured and often violent world in which we increasingly find ourselves, we might benefit from a shift in focus away from the things that separate us to the things that we enjoy in common, however small.
I found this recipe many years ago in a magazine left behind on a table in an Artesia, California, Indian restaurant. The magazine is called India Currents.
Recipe: Broccoli-Cauliflower Sambar
1 1/2 C. cauliflower florets
1 1/2 C. broccoli florets
1-2 C. chopped Tomatoes
2-3 C. water
3 C. cooked pink lentils
1 T. fresh or frozen grated coconut (unsweetened and optional)
1 T. sambar powder
2 t. ground coriander
1/2-1 C. coconut milk
Herb-spice infused oil topping
1 1/2 T. mild oil
1/2 t. black mustard seeds
10 fresh kari leaves (optional)
1/4 C. chopped onion
1/8 t. turmeric
Put cauliflower florets, broccoli florets, chopped tomatoes, and lentils in a large soup pot. Add water, optional coconut, sambar powder and 1/8 t. pepper. Stir to mix and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 10-12 minutes. Stir in coconut milk. Cook until hot for 4-5 additional minutes and then turn heat off.
Put mild oil in a skillet. When the oil is hot, add black mustard seeds and cook until mustard seeds begin to pop. Be careful here, although the mustard seeds are small, they can burn if they pop out of the pan and land on your skin. Add the kari leaves (optional). Stir in the onion and turmeric. Cook until onion just begins to brown. This should take about four minutes. Remove pan from heat and add the oil mixture to your soup. Stir. Garnish with chopped cilantro and chopped tomatoes.
Cook’s Notes: Sambar powder and kari leaves are available in Indian markets. Indian markets also carry many idli mixes. Gits brand is a good one. There is a special idli steamer that Indians use to make the rice cakes but I’ve found that my egg poacher does just fine. If you live in Southern California, there are a few South Indian restaurants in Artesia’s Little India. You can get very good idli and sambar at Udipi Palace located at 18635 Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia.
I will post a recipe for coconut chutney soon.