Is there a way to understand the different spice mixes of Tamil cuisine from the first principles point of view? Let’s look at the 3 most famous podi’s (a.k.a spice mix) found in most tamil homes. The following proportion mostly reflect ingredients used in Tamil Brahmin cuisine.
The 3 podi’s: Sambar, Rasam, Curry Podis
Sambar powder – a very powerful and flavor-packed powder is used to make the famous South Indian vegetable lentil stew – sambar. Store-bought versions, so far in my opinion, are awful and unless you know how to make adjustments to your store bought spice, you will end up with a very spicy sambar, not typical in an every day home.
Rasam powder is used to make a watery spicy soup called rasam. Some homes don’t bother making a separate rasam powder often adding cumin-pepper powder to their homemade sambar powder and calling it a day….and that’s totally ok.
Curry podi is used to make vegetable curries. Curry podi is a brahmin spice mix primarily used to flavor a vegetable stir fry. These stir frys are dry and used as a side dish to sambar mixed with rice. Please note, this is not the ubiquitous curry powder that is sold in American stores. That is a whole different story, for another day…
I am not going to give you the recipes for these podis in this post. You can look it up in any South Indian recipe book or on any south Indian food blogs. This post is just to understand the broad principles of these spice mixes.
A caveat – Because there are 7 billion people on this planet, my explanation may not fit certain recipes or it may not explain the way your aunt made it. And that’s ok…I am just trying to get a young cook to understand the background principles.
It took me a long time to get to my a-ha moment, but once I started understanding the reasoning, I was not paralyzed by fear with the podis anymore.
What are the typical ingredients in making sambar podi? A sambar podi typically involves roasting and powdering:
- Red Chilis
- Coriander Seeds
- Toor Dal/Chana Dal/Urad Dal
- Fenugreek Seeds
- Black Pepper
It may also include other ingredients like Jeera, cinammon, copra etc based on local variations and expected shelf life.
Sambar Podi explained:
- Proportion of red chilis = or slightly > coriander seeds: Since sambar is a thick lentil stew, it has a lot of cooked dal. Cooked Dal is dense, yet bland by itself, therefore it can take a lot of chili heat. So, red chilis will be quite high in proportion and often the largest component of the dish.
*This is one of the reasons I don’t like store-bought sambar powder because they often over-do the chilis to such an extent that I barely get any other flavor other than the heat.
- 2nd highest ingredient will be coriander: Coriander seeds have a fibrous, absorbent seed coat and thicken the sauces it is added to 1. Sambar has dal, it has vegetables, it has tamarind water. There needs to a binder that pulls everything together into a final, viscous liquid. Coriander helps with that.
It also grounds/tempers down the acidity in dishes and since tamarind is quite acidic, it needs the coriander seeds. Most liquid, acidic Indian stews will have coriander as a key component.
- Fenugreek is a must: Fenugreek seeds provide a savory, bittersweet background for many dishes. When roasted, the seeds release a nutty flavor from pyrazines similar to coffee and chocolate 2. It has a strong and complex flavor that only hearty lentil stews can handle. BUT, a little goes a long way. Don’t overdo this spice in your zest to cook well or the dish will get too bitter.
- Roasted Toor dal for Malliard flavors: Indian lentils, when roasted, undergo Maillard reaction and develop complex flavors. Remember, sambar already has cook toor dal. So, why are we doubling down on the lentils again?? – because the roasted lentils adds a great deal of oomph!!…10X or more flavor compounds than its raw or cooked version. The roasted dal powder also adds works as a thickener to bring the sambar liquid together.
- Powdered Finely: Sambar powder is the only powder where they fuss over the size of the final particles. It should be so fine, so as to seamlessly merge into the rest of the liquid. For this purpose, families used to send the roasted ingredients out to the neighborhood mills to get their sambar podi powdered. And this is the reason why my mom will keep sending me back to the noisy blender after inspecting the sambar powder texture and saying “Innum konjam” – which means “Not fine enough, grind it some more…”
A rasam podi typically involves roasting and powdering:
- Red Chilis
- Coriander Seeds
- Toor Dal
- Cumin Seeds
- Black Pepper
- Curry Leaves
Rasam means essence. So, you can have different Rasams based on the star ingredient – like tomato rasam, pineapple rasam, garlic rasam etc. Some rasams can be made without rasam powder too. Like I mentioned before, if you are a busy cook, you do not have to make separate rasam powder. A sambar powder with some added adjustments will do.
Rasam Podi explained:
- Coarse powder compared to sambar: Rasam powder is more coarsely ground than sambar because you are trying to extract the essence and you don’t want a cloudy broth created by fine powders. So, it is kind of like the Vietnamese pho, where a clear, tasty broth is prized. So, a coarse grind of ingredients, just to open them up and then gently simmer to extract their taste – will yield a tasty rasam.
- No fenugreek seeds: Rasam powder, by itself, is unlikely to have the bitter fenugreek seed powder since it does not have thick dals to counteract the bitterness. But, in a pinch, if you have to use sambar powder, then you just dilute the flavors of fenugreek by adding cumin+pepper+toor dal ground coarsely.
- Cumin-Pepper are stars: Rasam powder will have the highest proportion of cumin and pepper among any other podis. Black pepper when used along with cumin adds warmth to a dish and it enhances the ‘pinene’ compound in cumin that gives a woody, smoky flavor 3. Drinking rasam makes you feel warm, it is often used as an appetizer or when you are having a cough or cold. Cumin+pepper helps with that function.
A curry podi typically involves roasting and powdering:
- Chana Dal
- Red Chilies
- Coriander seeds (sometimes added, and very little)
- Coconut/Seed powders
Tamil brahmin curry is a side dish where the vegetables are par-cooked in steam or pressure and then stir-fried in a kadai or wok. It is typically dry in texture since you are serving it with a liquid sambar mixed with rice. Soggy curry with soggy sambar does not make sense.
Since the vegetables emit a lot of moisture, you need to contain the moisture with ingredients that also taste great.
Curry Podi explained:
- Roasted Dal adds special flavor: We have the roasted dals, again with the Malliard reaction (to amplify flavors) and adds body to the curry. Plain vegetable stir-fries are boring. In the past, brahmins did not use onion/garlic which could have enhanced flavor. So, layering of flavoring was done by other ingredients – like – roasted lentil powder.
- Roasted nuts and seeds for richness: Curry powder is the main place where we add healthy roasted fats like – poppy seeds, flaxseeds, coconut, sesame seeds etc… The seed/nut powders help keep the stir fry dry. The vegetables, by themselves, are low-calorie and low fat and cannot fill you up easily. The seed/nut powders add much-needed richness from healthy fats and keep you full without having to cut kilos and kilos (or pounds) of veggies.
Samin Nosrat in her famous book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat 3 kept thinking about recipes and what makes them successful and asked chefs if the taste of the dish boils down to…you know…the levels of salt, fat, acid, and heat in a dish, and they were like: “Well Yeah, isn’t that obvious?” and she explains that not many of us automatically know that. And her best selling book indicates that fact.
Similarly, I expect many older aunts and moms to look at this explanation and go, “well, duh!!”, but these are not so intuitive for many young cooks who are confused by all the recipes and ingredients. I hope my brief explanation helped young cooks navigate their spice adventures a little better.
Do mention below, any of your a-ha moments or what you have learned so far from South Indian spices. I look forward to hearing from you.
References/ Amazon Affiliate Links
- On Food and Cooking
2. The Science of Spice
3. Salt, Fat, Acid Heat