The author sets out to taste a very different kind of idli accompaniment.

There are signs of life — small things — like the rustle of a newspaper, the early morning stretch and crack of knuckles, a soft gentle breath of warm air that fans against your face. Udupi is rubbing the sand out of her eyes, bleary and like a petulant child, “five minutes more,” she pleads. It is a short walk to anywhere in the temple town with the temple located in the centre. In charming Tulu a man directs me to Mitra Samaj on Car Street. So with my nose in the air searching for a whiff of the crackling masala or earthy coconut, I go in search of Udupi sambar.

Mitra Samaj was exactly how I had imagined it to be — small and dark with less than a century of history. Established in 1949, the narrow space had tables on both sides and matching chairs that fit each other like a puzzle. I find my seat next to husband, across from wife while paapa who could barely toddle stands on the table. The twin idlis arrive on a calm sea of frothy chutney with a small vessel of angry, red sambar on the side. The permutations and combinations are many; dice and dunk idli first in chutney then in sambar, only chutney, only sambar, vice versa and etcetera. The author is familiar with Udupi sambar from a lifetime of visits to the city; it is the same — sweet, spicy and craving for double strong coffee at the end.

It is by chance that I find Harsharaj Upadhya and his wife who have put together a modest home business making sambar powder. He is puzzled by my interest in Udupi sambar but offers helpfully: “The taste is very different because there is no garam masala. We use dhaniya (coriander seeds), methi (fenugreek), jeera (cumin), red chillis, toor dal (pigeon peas) and a pinch of asafoetida. The secret ingredient is coconut oil,” he reveals without letting me in on how they use it. He murmurs something about frying and wringing and grinding which is all very well, but the sweetness, what about the sweetness? “While preparing, we add jaggery,” he says, his eyes laughing as we take a tour of the establishment.

I’m giddy with relief as a draught of air conditioning cools the drip down my back, and the serpentine queue inside Woodlands Restaurant a blessing. Token number 40 does not take much time and the south Indian meal is quicker still. “Sambar cucumber, raw jackfruit, pumpkin, brinjal, but only the green brinjal…” Prasad Rao, owner of Woodlands, speaks loud and fast, ordering sambar saaru for me. “Jaggery is very important. Over here we use only for taste but if you go to the temple you won’t call it sambar you will only say it is paayasa. We use jaggery in everything, for a scientific reason,” he goes on to explain, “You sweat a lot here, so the jaggery is used to replenish iron in your body. That’s why in Udupi everything has a sweet touch; for outsiders, it takes some getting used to.”

Louder and faster… “There are three types of sambar masala huli, bol huli and podi huli, all have different names in the local language and have small variations in the preparation. Masala huli has vegetables, tamarind, dal and coconut; bol huli and podi huli are more or less the same — both don’t have coconut and podi huli has sambar powder in it.” Stops for a quick breath, “And the sambar is slightly watery. A favourite in the area is sambar-idli, the idli is soaked in the sambar and people have it like a soup.” After the rapid fire, over bowls of saaru and sambar punctuated by the odd Mangalore bun, I return to Mitra Samaj in search of its owner, the elusive Achuth Holla. “We don’t use onion or garlic in Udupi sambar; only Brahmins prepare. It is difficult to find these people as a full day’s work here will get them 600 rupees; but when they work five hours, from six to 11 am, for wedding catering, they earn 1,500 rupees,” he says.

I share the table with an old gentleman and his daughter and place my order for sambar-idli. It arrives, a single idli doing the dead man’s float in a flow of sweet Udupi sambar. It is a favourite in the temple town and just needs some getting used to.

HOW IT’S MADE

Ingredients

Toor dal 1/2 cup

Fenugreek seeds 1/2 teaspoon

Urad dal 1 teaspoon

Red chillies 6 to 7

Coriander seeds 1 1/2 tablespoons

Curry leaves - Five sprigs

Coconut (grated) 1/4 cup

Mustards seeds 1/2 teaspoon

Asafoetida - One pinch

Green chillies 2 slit

Vegetables of choice (brinjals, pumpkin, yam) 2 cups (diced)

Tamarind juice - lemon sized ball of tamarind soaked in 1/3 cup of water.

Salt to taste

Jaggery or brown sugar 1 1/2 teaspoon

Oil 2 tablespoon

Method

Cook the toor dal till tender and then mash it. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and roast the fenugreek seeds till light red, then add urad dal and sauté till it changes colour. Add the red chilli and coriander seeds. Add curry leaves and the grated coconut and roast. They should all turn light brown and aromatic. Cool and grind to a fine paste with a little water.

Heat one tablespoon oil in a pan. Add the mustard seeds. When they splutter add 1/2 teaspoon of urad dal and the asafoetida. Fry for a minute. Add the green chillies, vegetables and fry till you get a nice aroma. Add a little water. Cover and cook till the veggies are done.

Extract pulp from the tamarind and add to the vegetables. Add salt to taste and crumbled jaggery and cook till the raw smell of the tamarind disappears. Add the mashed dal and the ground masala. Mix well and add a little water if required. Simmer for a few minutes.

There are three types of sambar — masala huli, bol huli and podi huli — which have small variations in the preparation.

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