Parsi Sambhar Masala

When you wandered over to read this post, bet you didn’t think there would be spreadsheets involved. There are. Relax, there are no numbers involved. But if you just hate spreadsheets at their core, numbers or not, then sadly we must part ways for today. Because I got a little too involved and went pseudo-technical. But as a bonus, I also created a nifty “What-do-you-call-that-spice-in-Hindi/English?” solution. Everything in one nifty little table.

In other news, I think my need to organize absolutely everything has gone all OCD.

One of the things I meant to do last month was compare Parsi Sambhar masala (PSM) to South Indian type sambhar masala (SISM? Let’s go with it). My daily posting schedule, however, kept me too busy for the research. I knew they are different, but since I’m very interested in the nature of spices, I wanted to understand how they were different. I looked into it over the past weekend.

While each southern state of India – heck, probably each province in those states – has their own special and secret recipe for their SISM mix, it is for the most part widely agreed that there are certain ingredients to be included. Curry leaves have to be part of it. So do various split lentils. PSM does not have these. But then, SISM has cumin and mustard seeds, which PSM has too. The similarities don’t end there.

Specific to dhansak dal, which was my introduction to PSM, it involves the addition of both PSM and dhansak masala. The complex combination of so many spices in this dal creates its unique flavour. (On a tangential note, ever wonder who developed these individual spice mixes in the first place? And then got even more ambitious and decided to combine a couple of them? Such culinary perspicacity! I want whatever energy drink they were having.) But with so many spices involved, would a slight variation to PSM make any difference? Yes, I think about these things.

Head spinning already? All of this seem too wordy with no purpose? See, spreadsheets exist to prevent such things.

Presenting my handy-dandy matrix, telling you all about what you didn’t want to know. Since this stuff keeps me up at night. I had to sort it out. I know, I need help.


I got curious about dhansak masala and needed to find out if it had any spices in common with SISM so I’ve included that too. This table is, of course, only looking at ingredients. The quantity of an ingredient does make a difference to the overall flavour a spice mix will impart. But for what it’s worth, this here is the ingredient comparison.

Based on the conclusions one may draw from this table, and given the fact that the predominant masala in dhansak is dhansak masala, I’ve come to a tenuous conclusion that for dhansak dal’s purposes, PSM and SISM are interchangeable. Just use less of it. Given that Parsi sambhar Masala is not commercially available with ease outside India, this could be good news for you if you have your heart set on making this dal. Go on, I know you want to.

Alternatively though, you could just make your own fabulous Parsi sambhar masala mix.  How? It’s pretty simple, especially if you played along with me and already made your own dhansak masala. This is easier, and makes a lesser quantity of masala. Which is not a bad thing since you use less of it anyway.

You mix the powdered spices and salt in a bowl. Then you grind the whole spices. Then you mix everything together, while desperately trying to hold your breath. You fail miserably, inhale a good dose of it and then have to get out of the kitchen and sneeze continuously for ten minutes. You wipe your crying eyes and catch your breath just about the time you hear a strangled yelp from the bedroom, followed by loud, violent sneezing. Your husband should show up in five minutes or less, about ready to swear off all spices for life.

Meanwhile, you hurry back into the kitchen to wash your hands, heat the oil, pour it into the spice and stir furiously so you can finish. The ‘furiously’ bit is a very bad idea, which of course, you would have logically deduced had your brain cells not been rolling over playing dead after that previous sneezing bout. As it turns out, they have no time to get their act together because this time you need to run out of the kitchen, into the bathroom and attempt to drown your face under the shower as that is the only way the flames on it will be put out. When you’re done, the dust will have settled, so to speak, as you cautiously edge back to the bowl. You can then beam in self-satisfaction at this lovely red spice mix that you got out of all that pain. But you must remember to do your beaming a good distance away from the bowl.

Or you could, you know, just follow the instructions below and be way more careful than me, thereby avoiding all the drama. But, in all honesty, nothing makes you feel more loved than hearing your significant other threaten psychiatric intervention for your spice obsession. It warms the heart.

Parsi Sambhar Masala
As per Niloufer Ichaporia King’s My Bombay Kitchen
Makes about 2 cups

Red chilli powder – 3/4 cup
Salt – 2 tbsp
Ground turmeric – 1 tbsp
Asafoetida – 2 tsp
Fenugreek seeds – 1/2 cup
Brown Mustard seeds – 2 tbsp
Peppercorns – 1 tsp
Star Anise – 1 tsp, broken pieces
Cloves – 1 tsp
Cinnamon – 1 3″ long stick
Untoasted sesame oil – 1 tbsp

– Mix the chilli, salt, turmeric and asafoetida together in a bowl.
– In your spice grinder, grind the rest of the whole spices together. Mix the ground since with the chilli-salt mixture.
– In a small pan, heat the sesame oil until it shimmers.
– Take the oil off the heat and pour into the center of the ground spices. Mix together with a fork until the oil is swirled in thoroughly and the spice mix loses its powdery look.

* *  A couple of notes…

Untoasted sesame oil is not the same as the sesame oil found in Asian stores. That’s toasted. Don’t try to substitute one for the other. If you can’t find teel oil, I’d put a 1/2 tsp of white sesame seeds in the spice grinder along with the whole spices, and use canola oil for the mix.

All jokes apart, this spice mix involves fine, commercially ground, packaged powders so do be careful mixing them. You don’t want to inhale chilli powder. Wearing gloves while doing these things is also not a bad idea if you have sensitive skin. It’s a lot more accident-proof to make a spice mix involving whole spices that get ground up in the contained environment of a spice grinder. This one, involving pre-ground powders, and free-mixing in open bowls, requires careful handling.

The sambhar masala ingredients were cross-referenced from a number of online sources. As I mentioned, most people have their own special recipes. I did my best to find the common denominator.

To the lovely ladies who won my spice giveaway, I solemnly swear I did not sneeze in that sambhar spice mix you will receive soon. On my honour. Proof? I’m still here. I don’t think I would have survived the explosion of spice powder that would have resulted from sneezing that close to it. The dust clouds raised were bad enough. 


  1. ramblinginthecity

    I love your writing and your passion for food. Am not that much of a foodie or a cook, but my husband is and I will send him the link to your blog NOW! super thinking of how the people you knew when you were little turn into such fantastically creative minds

  2. Nupur

    Bravo, bravo, Sharmila! This year I tasted a very minimalist South Indian sambar masala and thought it was the best I’ve ever tasted.