The Sambar in the Garden

17 Jul


I grew up adoring, like so many little girls, The Secret Garden. No matter that I killed plants by merely glancing at them, or that my mother was alive and well just up the stairs (hi mom!); there’s something about that story that just feels possible. All children know that grownups keep secrets and behave entirely irrationally. Why couldn’t there be a hidden paradise, just beyond the boundary you are allowed to wander? Kamala Nair feels the same way. In The Girl in the Garden, she spins the classic tale into a modern story for grownups. Rakhee Singh is an unhappy Minnesotan daughter of Indian immigrants. When her mother whisks her suddenly off to the mysterious ancestral home in India, Rakhee is culture-shocked. Giant spiders, spotty electricity, and bathing in a bucket aren’t exactly par for the course in Minnesota. But as she explores the lush jungle around the crumbling mansion, Rakhee finds both her confidence and the key to unlocking her Mother’s hidden past. Naturally, the food descriptions have had me in a curry fit since I picked the book up. On her eleventh birthday, Rakhee requests her favorite lentil stew, sambar, for dinner. Please note that this will be a beautiful dish for you- mine is quite ugly because I had to substitute the stiff green lentils for the soft, supple red ones. I also use hibiscus instead of the traditional tamarind in this dish as a tribute to the flowers in Rakhee’s garden. Find at any Latin grocer, or substitute pomegranate juice for a similar flavor.

The Sambar in the Garden

2 Tb dried hibiscus flowers
3 cups water
1 onion, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
8 new potatoes, chopped
3/4 cup RED lentils (dal)
1/4 cup unsweetened coconut
1 Tb mustard seed
1/2 tsp coriander seed
1 tsp cayenne (less if you’re wimpy)
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cumin seed

In a large skillet, heat a couple tablespoons of oil and sauté all the vegetables until softened- about 10 minutes. While those are going, bring your water to a boil in a separate saucepan. Remove it from the heat and toss in the hibiscus. Let that steep while the veggies finish up. Grind the coconut and the spices together, either in a mortar and pestle or an old coffee grinder. Feeling lazy? Just replace the spice blend with 1 1/2 Tb of curry powder and toss the coconut in as-is. Sauté one minute longer, add the lentils, and the hibiscus water (flowers and all! They’re yummy.) Simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the lentils are disintegrating into a mushy purée. If you’d like, you can mash your veggies as well with a potato masher.

Serves 4-6. Add rice or naan and a side of mango for a full meal.

1 Comment

Posted by on July 17, 2012 in Uncategorized


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One response to “The Sambar in the Garden

  1. Kevin Amend

    July 18, 2012 at 12:25 am

    I actually loved The Secret Garden as a kid. My mom watched the movie with me all the time! Though me being the rough and tumble man that I am i feel a little bit lame for admitting this. Wait… No I don’t… It’s a great story!


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