No Tamil pantry is complete without a jar of homemade Sambar Powder. This spice mix is as integral to the cuisine of south India as garam masala is to the cuisine of the north.
When my mother-in-law was alive, we would return from trips to Chennai with armloads of this wonderful burnt-orange powder. It never failed to amaze me how it transformed the dullest lentils into the most flavorful broths I had ever tasted. Eventually, I learned to make my own. It's not at all a difficult job if you have a coffee grinder on hand.
While traditionally sambar and rasam powder were made with sun-roasted spices, most cooks now just roast the spices on a skillet. And while Sambar Powder recipes tend to be fiery-hot, I prefer mine milder because sometimes too much heat can steal the show from the other, equally deserving ingredients.
1 tbsp chana dal or bengal gram
1 tbsp coriander seeds
2-3 red chilies, broken into pieces
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
A pinch of asafetida
Roast all the spices on a medium-low flame until they are lightly golden. Cool and powder in a coffee/spice grinder.
Store in an airtight container, preferably refrigerated.