< Back to Newsletters

Sambar Perfume Newsletter

Aromas alone can announce the culture and the nationality of a market. Indian markets are suffused strongly with the pungency of curry leaves, cumin and coriander. The magical dry-roasting of these spices creates completely new aromas, such as those found in a vegetarian dal dish cooked with tomato and garnished with black mustard seeds and frying onions. And everywhere in India there is the faint lingering aroma of cardamom and chocolaty cinnamon.
--from Heavenly Fragrance: Cooking With Aromatic Asian Herbs, Fruits, Spices And Seasonings
by Carol Selva Rajah

Almost 40 years ago I made my first trip to India at the age of 21. It was to be the first of many trips during which I gained exposure to a rich and diversified culture that included travels throughout many parts of that vast and ancient land. The rich tapestry of experiences that evolved with each encounter with India impacted my life on many levels one of which was an increased appreciation for the world of aromatic plants and the way they enrich our lives. The wealth of exotic scents that pervaded the environments of the farm in South India where I lived and worked awakened a life long interest in the plants, the environments in which they grew. By good fortune I was eventually able to journey throughout the length and breadth of India to investigate the fascinating world of fragrant botanicals during which I learned how deeply this natural treasures were interwoven into the social, economic and religious lives of the people.

One of the most immediate ways that one is drawn into the everyday life of India is through the scent radiating from spices used in the preparation of a vast array of culinary delights which vary from region to region. These exotic aromas are inescapable as often the spices are heated during the process of cooking. The heat of cooking the spices in oil releases their scent into the surrounding air and acts stimulates the appetite far in advance of eating the delicious dishes themselves.

One of the traditional dishes of South India is called "sambar" a thick soup which is created from one of three bases-tamarind, tamarind and dal(lentils) or buttermilk. Tamarind is a fruit of a tree that grows extensively throughout the south. The long hand-harvested pods contain a tart/lemony pulp which is central to many dishes other than sambar. It has a fine cooling effect to a basically "hot" cuisine. Dal refers to the many types of split lentils, peas or beans that are the center of many Indian dishes and are very rich in protein. Buttermilk in India refers to the liquid left over from extracting butter from churned yogurt.

Sambar served with idli is a traditional breakfast meal that is often served on banana leaves.  In the warm climates of South India where I spent a good deal of time, the climate is warm and houses are kept open so wherever one went one could smell the delectable perfume of spices combined in numerous ways for savoury snacks, breads, vegetable dishes, deserts etc. There alluring aromas were delightful and comforting and also put one in touch with the spirit of the country-drawing one into an ancient world through the sense of smell.

An exquisite introductions to the food of South India is to be experienced by ordering a "thali" in a restaurant or if one is even more fortunate to be invited to eat at someone's home. Traditional hutsIt is an appealing experience on every level. A thali consists of a large round stainless steel tray upon which is arranged 5-10 small stainless steel bowls containing traditional soups, dal, vegetables, chutney, dahi(yogurt) and a sweet. Along with these small bowls one eats a variety of freshly prepared flat breads such as poori or chapati and rice.

The colorful beauty of the thali, the rich textures of the food (which are generally eaten with the right hand), their aromatic smell and delicious taste makes for a completely absorbing experience. That tray of food contains many unique spice combinations which are specially prepared for ever dish giving each its special taste and smell.

Many fine sambar recipes can be discovered on the internet:

Sambar from "The Veggie Table"

Buttermilk Sambar (moru kuzhambu) from "Cooking Index"

Sambar: A Method Made Easy from "Veg Recipes of India"

Every person preparing authentic South Indian food has their own special basic recipe for Sambar Masala Powder. Following is one that is taken from the beautiful cookbook, Dakshin-Vegetarian Cuisine from South India by Chandra Padmanahan (This book is elegantly put together with stunning photographs of the dishes she prepares. The visual presentation captures something of the spirit of the smell and taste of this tantalizing dishes. Suzanne and I love to use this book for preparing our meals at home)


Sambar Powder 1
Preparation Time: 30 minutes
Makes 200 grams(7 ounces)

1 Tablespoon oil
2 cups(approximately 2 cups) red chillies(chilli peppers)
1 3/4 cups(5 ounces) coriander seeds
4 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons fenugreek seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 1/2 tablespoons brown mustard seed
2 teaspoons ground tumeric
2 teaspoons Bengal gram dal(yellow split peas, channa dal)
2 teaspoons red gram dal(pigeon peas, toor dal)
2 teaspoons poppy seeds
2 large sticks cinnamon bark
a few curry leaves
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a heavy frying pan or skillet. Add the red chillies and saute for 2-3 minutes
(A person can adjust the amount of chillies as per their taste)
In a heavy saucepan, dry-roast all the other ingredients separately until they each give off a strong aroma.(However do not roast the ground turmeric)
Place all the the ingredients into an electric blender or food processor. Blend into a fine powder.
Store in an airtight container.

The preparation of such a powder is very much akin to making a perfume. Each of the ingredients is so unique in its aromatic bouquet and as one individually roasts each one they become enveloped in its enticing aroma. Then in the end everything is combined together to create a totally new spice essence. There is a whole realm of delectable essences that can be created to celebrate the role that foods of the world have contributed to world of natural perfumery. Each country has special aromatics which reflect the cultural history of that land. This month we are celebrating India with Sambar Perfume.

Sambar Perfume recipe

1 ounce Fenugreek CO2
1/8 ounce Cumin Seed EO
2 ounce Tumeric CO2
1/2 ounce Curry Leaf EO
1 ounce Coriander EO
1/4 ounce Black Pepper EO
1/16th ounce Cinnamon bark EO
A couple of tiny drops of Asafoetida EO(optional)

Please note that this Sambar Perfume Recipe is a perfume recipe, not a blend to be taken internally.


The Scent of Indian Spices in Literature

If you walk into a traditional Indian home or restaurant during mealtime, you are guaranteed to experience the aroma of distinct spices. India's love affair with spices is thousands of years old. Spices have both aromatic and medicinal value are are generally considered good for the body, mind and soul.
--from India: Nation on the Move
by Manish Telikicherla Chary

An Indian is exposed to more combinations of flavors Indian spicesand seasonings than perhaps anyone else in the world. Our cuisine stretches from the freshness and sweetness of aromatic curry leaves to the dark pungency of resin, asafetida, whose earthy aroma tends to startle Westerners.
--from A Taste of India
by Madhur Jaffrey

The way to become comfortable with spices is to work with them, to become familiar with each one, and to learn the way they act upon the foods they are seasoning as well as how they interact with one another. Each spice has unique and specific properties. Some are aromatics, some add heat to a dish, and some lend coloring. Others are souring agents, and still others act as thickeners. Some spices have more than one property; saffron, for example is used to color dishes, and at the same time, it lends a marvelous sweet aroma. Only a handful of spices are "hot," though when we use the word "spicy", hot is usually what we mean. Spices vary in fragrance, sweetness, aroma, and heat. Sometimes a particular spice is intended to dominate a dish; or other times several are meant to blend together in a dish and not overwhelm. Despite the fact that "spicy" has strong connotations to most people, some of the most successfully spiced dishes are very subtle. Spices are usually added to dishes in relatively small amounts.
--from The Spice of Vegetarian Cooking
by Martha Rose Shulman

The exotic scent of spices: rich, alluring, and almost magical. A scent that would sometimes overpower the freshness in the air and sometimes subtly mingle with it to create a tantalizing bouquet. A scent that would always bring me back to my childhood...

On weekly spice-drying days, the veranda turned into a bright canvas painted with spices, all arranged on zinc plates for drying under the heat of the tropical sun. And from the brilliant reds, yellows, greens , and a dozen other shades in every imaginable shape, size and texture, an irresistible aroma of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, nutmeg, peppercorns, cardamon, ginger, and chiles wafted throughout the yard and house, enveloping me in their perfume...Bare hands neatly heaped the mini-mountains of fiery ground masalas in gunnysacks, a vivid color palette: golden yellow turmeric powder, burning red chile powder, and earthy brown cumin, coriander and cinnamon powders. Ready made spice rubs, like balls of colored dough, were spooned onto freshly cut and cleaned square banana leaves that, once sealed, locked in the masala's moisture. Whole spices like cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, anise, caraway, cloves and cardamon whispered their magic to the throngs of customers who visited the market daily.
--from The Spice Merchant's Daughter
by Christina Arokiasamy