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Recipes | Arachuvitta Sambhar and Vatha Kulambu – Indian spices and aromatic cooking

7 February 2015 5 Comments

healthy vegetarian recipes, south indian spices

But your looks, accent, mannerism…I can’t believe you are not a South Indian….you don’t look like a Rajasthani  to me from any angle” her gaze narrowed on my face.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do” I replied with a cheery grin pulling out my glasses from the box and getting ready for the interview to follow.

She nodded with a naughty smile and started the audio recorder.

Some days back, Kalyan Karmakar a food blogger friend contacted me and connected me to ‘S’ from IMRB international who was looking to source out expert opinion in regional cuisine of Tamil Nadu.

We are looking to explore and try to learn about the evolution, changes and shift in culinary culture in India, specifically Delhi and Tamil Nadu. We hope to get a better understanding of the correlation between culture and cuisine. The main aim of this study is to understand the changing and current role, relevance, importance and influence of spices in Indian cuisine.” read the mail from Imrb office.

‘R’ was appointed to interview me at my residence. To my surprise, the interview which was scheduled for 45 minutes stretched for more than two hours. That is the power of food, it has that ability to comfort and I could talk about food all day.

We spoke at length about how the cuisine of Tamil Nadu is roughly categorized based upon the region, frequently used spices, taste preferences, cultural influences on food and cooking techniques.

Some of the favorite topics of discussion were the distinct features of Tamil Nadu cuisines, changes in food habits and certain unique food ingredients which are indigenous to the state. More about these in the next post.

A small snippet about the spices of South India that I shared with her:

I am not an expert to talk about Tamil cuisine. But cooking a full course TamBrahm (Tamil Brahmin) meal for my better half and staying with him for 20 years in TN should be a reason good enough to imbibe the culture and love for local food of the place.”

healthy vegetarian recipes, indian spices

That’s me…happy memories 1996…traditional marriage in Tamil Nadu

The secret of all Indian spices is knowing when to use it. Apart from adding wonderful aroma to the recipes some of these spices act as appetizers & preservatives and are also well-known for its medicinal properties.

Indian cuisine is incomplete without a medley of colorful spices and Tamil cuisine is no exception to it. A set of few basic spices is all that one needs to prepare a simple daily South Indian meal.

I read an interesting online article in which Indian spices are divided into three categories:

  1. Basic spices, are some of the most essential spices used in daily cooking such as mustard seeds, cumin (jeera), asafoetida (hing), turmeric powder (haldi), dry red chillies.
  2. Complimentary spices: Spices which compliments the basic spices and helps enhance the flavor of the dish such as fennel, carom seeds, Nigella seeds (kalongi), fenugreek seeds etc.
  3. Secondary spices: These spices are generally warm in nature and have a characteristic strong aroma such as cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, Mace, peppercorn, bayleaf, saffron etc.

My home cooking is heavily influenced by Tambrahm iyer style of food which predominantly make use of the basic Indian spices. Cumin, coriander seeds, curry leaves, coconut, dry red chillies, tamarind, ginger and coconut are some of the frequently used spices and ingredients in this style of cuisine. Garlic and onion are completely avoided during auspicious days and are less preferred on normal days of cooking.

Masala dabba in Hindi and Anjarai Petti as in Tamil is a word  used to denote a box of spices and herbs to be used in daily cooking.”

Our discussion on Indian spices continued….

healthy vegetarian recipes, indian spices

And now for the recipe…..well, when we are talking about spices of South India how far the very popular ‘Arachuvitta Sambhar’ can be.

Like many other Sambhar recipes of South India this spicy stew also has tamarind (Imli) and pigeon peas (toor daal) as the two key ingredients. But the highlight of the recipe is the freshly roasted and ground spices which take this recipe to a different level.

The coarsely ground spices thickens the gravy and perfectly compliment each other enhancing the flavor of this tangy stew.

The spicy stew can be served as a breakfast accompaniment with Idly, Dosa or as lunch

I am sharing two of my favorite South Indian Kulambu or curry recipes I learned from my MIL here, Arachuvitta Sambhar and Vatha Kulambu. If the first recipe is a medley of flavors and requires an elaborate preparation than the second recipe is a breeze to cook and make use of a very indigenous ingredient called Manatakkali or Sun berries.

Manatakkali shrubs used to grow wild all over our garden in Udaipur but we were never allowed to touch those tiny berries as it was considered toxic. I never knew that the leaves and berries are edible until I got married and tried this delicious spicy Manathakkali Vatha kulambu my MIL cooked when I visited her first time after my marriage in 1996.

1. Lentil stew with freshly ground spices aka Arachuvitta Sambhar

healthy vegetarian recipes, indian spices


(serve 3)

  • 1/2 cup of boiled pigeon peas
  • 1 tsp. tamarind paste
  • 1/4 tsp. turmeric powder
  • 2 Drumsticks
  • 2-3 cups Water
  • Salt to taste


  • 3 tbsp. Grated coconut
  • 1 tbsp. Bengal gram
  • 1 tbsp. Coriander seeds
  • 1/4 tsp. Fenugreek seeds
  • 1-2 Red chilies
  • 5-6 Peppercorns


  • 2 tbsp oil
  • A pinch of asafetida powder
  • 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1/2 tsp. fenugreek seeds
  • 2 dry red chilies
  • Few Curry leaves

healthy vegetarian recipes, indian spices

Method; Wash and soak pigeon peas or  split Toovar daal for 20 minutes.

Pressure cook or steam pigeon peas with turmeric powder and about 3 cups of water till soft (3-4 whistles in a pressure cooker). Mash the cooked lentil with a ladle or churner.

Chop the drumsticks into 2 inch pieces.

Heat a skillet or wok and dry roast Bengal gram, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, peppercorn and red chilly in it for 5-6 minutes. Add grated coconut and sauté for 2 minutes.

Take out all the roasted ingredients in a plate and let it cool for a few minutes.

Grind all the roasted ingredients into fine powder by adding a few teaspoons of water in it.

I make a ready-to-use home-made tamarind paste and refrigerate it. If you are using fresh tamarind, soak a lemon sized ball of it in a little water for 15 minutes and extract juice from it.

Take 2 cups of water in a vessel and salt, chopped drumsticks and tamarind paste or extraction in it and bring it to a boil. Let it simmer till the drumstick pieces are cooked.

Add ground spice-mix in the boiling tamarind water and continue to simmer for 2-3 minutes.

healthy vegetarian recipes, indian spices

Pour cooked and mashed lentil or daal in the above vessel, let it come to a boil and take the vessel off the flame.

Heat oil in the same wok and crackle mustard seeds in it. Add dry red chilies (preferable round variety), fenugreek seeds, asafoeitda powder, curry leaves and sauté for a minute.

Pour the tempering over the cooked Sambhar and serve it hot with Idly, Dosa, plain rice or Indian flat-breads.

2. Tangy Sun berry stew aka Manathakkali Vatha Kulambu 

healthy vegetarian recipes, indian spices


(serve 2-3)

  • 3 tbsp. Sun berries or Manathakkali
  • 1 tbsp. tamarind paste
  • 1 tbsp Sambhar powder
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 1 tsp rice flour
  • 1/2 tsp jaggery/sugar
  • Salt to taste
  • Water as required


  • 1 tbsp Bengal gram
  • 1 tsp. mustard seeds
  • 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 1 red chilly
  • Curry leaves

healthy vegetarian recipes, indian spices

Method; Soak tamarind in 1/4 th cup of warm water for 10 minutes and extract the thick paste or use pre-prepared tamarind paste if you have any.

Check a few Sambhar powder recipes using Bengal gram, balck gram and fenugreek seeds here.

Heat oil in a wok or kadai and fry the Sun berries or dried Manatakkali till they turn dark brown in colour.

Take out the berries and keep it separately.

Add mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, Bengal gram and red chilly in the same hot oil and suate for 2 minutes.

Add salt, asafoetida powder and Sambhar powder in the wok and immediately add tamarind pulp or paste mixed in 2-3 cups of water in it.

Let the stew simmer for 3-4 minutes.

Dissolve rice flour in 2 tbsp. of water, pour it in the wok and continue to simmer for another 2-3 minutes.

Take off the wok from flame and serve the hot curry with plain rice.

This curry stays good for 4-5 days when refrigerated and can be savored with Idly, Dosa or even Indian flat breads.


  1. Soak the lentil or Daal for 30 minutes before cooking it for the first recipe.
  2. Use any vegetable of your choice to make this Sambhar. Radish, Okra, onion, pumpkin, brinjal, carrots and colocasia (arbi) go well with the first recipe.
  3. Chop the vegetables into bite size pieces so that the vegetables hold the shapes after cooking. .
  4. Sometimes vegetables take longer time when boiled in tamarind water. To avoid this cook the vegetables in plan water first and then add them to tamarind water.

Search for the English & Hindi names of various foods and ingredients used in this post here in Glossary.


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  • Prash@YummilyYours said:

    A beautifully written blog post with excellent pictures and recipes. Made me anyone as i read through:)

  • Anjali Koli said:

    Sanjeeta loved that wedding pic. Having met you and knowing you a bit. You are an example of how an Indian women melds into the unfamiliar culture and makes it her own after marriage. These two recipes are so intrinsically Tamil and staple too. Thanks for sharing the authentic experience. Also I sometimes feel a third person view on culture opens new eyes of seeing it so you are a perfect subject for this interview.

  • sanjeeta kk (author) said:

    @Anjali, Thanks for the sweet comment..am in love with your Koli cuisine and spices…waiting to try out some soon.

  • kameswari said:

    Tempting recipes!

  • sangeeta khanna said:

    How beautiful pictures Sanjeeta. I am going to try this Manathakkali kulambu first. Thank you so much for sending the packets across. So sweet of you to introduce me to such traditional ingredients that I keep searching.

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