Sambar powder is a blend of spices used to make a Southern Indian soup called sambar. The complexity that sambar powder provides is essential if you want your sambar to have an authentic flavor. Sambar powder is not the most widely known spice blend in the west, which means that you may have trouble finding it in a hurry if you do not have an Indian grocery store near you. If ordering it online is out of the question, consider these sambar powder alternatives.
Your best bet: Make your own sambar powder
When you need a hard-to-find spice blend, your best option is usually to make it yourself. Not only does it allow you to tailor the blend according to your own preferences, you are more likely to get a better final product by using fresh whole spices that you grind yourself. Note that not everything in a sambar powder blend will be easy to find in a typical US grocery store; however, there are effective alternatives for even the hardest-to-find ingredients.
Typical sambar powder ingredients include: Toor dal (pigeon peas), channa dal (chickpeas/garbanzo beans), coriander, black peppercorns, cumin, turmeric, cayenne pepper, and asafoetida. If you have all of these ingredients or suitable alternatives, you can grind them in a spice grinder to create an effective sambar powder alternative that you can use exactly as you would use store-bought sambar powder. See PepperScale’s recipe for the proper measurements.
A decent second choice: Rasam powder
Rasam is a dish that can be similar to sambar, with a similar aromatic and spicy flavor profile. Both sambar powder and rasam powder are subject to variation based on regional tradition or the cook’s preferences. Both originated in the state of Tamil Nadu but have become popular in other parts of India. As a result, the dishes can differ dramatically or be very similar depending on who makes it. The spices used in some rasam powder blends are largely the same as those used in sambar powder.
Use a rasam powder blend that most closely replicates your preferred sambar powder blend. Rasam powder can be used as a 1:1 substitute for sambar powder.
In a pinch: Chaat masala
One of the prevailing flavor notes in rasam is acidity, those acid notes may come from tomato or from tamarind. Chaat masala can enhance the acidity in sambar since it contains its own souring agents, or you can use it to replace the tomato or tamarind entirely. Chaat masala is a spice blend usually used to flavor chaat, which is a fried street food that can consist of everything from fried potatoes to fried pieces of dough.
Use chaat masala as a 1:1 substitute for sambar powder.
Madras curry powder is a British spice blend meant to replicate the flavor profiles of other popular Indian spice blends. It has a number of the same ingredients that you would find in a sambar powder blend, which means that it can bring a similar profile to your dishes.
Vindaloo curry powder comes from the attempt to make a Portuguese dish using Indian ingredients and is known as the hottest curry powder blend. Like Madras curry powder, it has several spices in common with sambar powder and thus a similar flavor profile.