When I think about my mother, I think about the scents that defined her. My mother walked around with a unique perfume of rose, sandalwood, and of course, spices — sweet cardamom, fragrant sambar pudi, and chalky turmeric.

There’s something about loss that removes someone from your memory in a tactile sense. I can no longer tell you what it felt like to hug my mom in a true sense (of course I have memories). But I can still smell her. I can even smell what the kitchen was like when she made her signature recipe — idlis and sambar — the sharp tang of the spiced lentil soup, the moist and musty smell that emanated when the idlis would rise.

I love that I can make my mother’s idli recipes and feel like I’m eight or nine again, wanting just one more idli.

The way the foods we cook, the books we read, and the music we listen to can connect us to prior generations and also to other cultures has always inspired me. In the spirit of food as connection, I thought I would share this recipe and invite everyone to experience this South Indian staple and my go-to comfort food. If you’re new to South Indian cooking, idlis are round rice cakes that are super absorbent, and sambar is a lentil curried soup that seriously makes everything delicious. Enjoy.

Sambar Recipe

  • First, get yourself some sambar powder — here’s one I use! 
  • Soak toor dal (split yellow pigeon peas) with a 1:2 ratio of dal:water in an Instant Pot or pressure cooker. I usually put it in for about ~10 mins in the Instant Pot
  • Mash up the dal with a spatula
  • Prep your veggies — I usually throw in 1 organic onion, 1 organic carrot, 1-2 organic tomatoes, and something fleshy (like organic eggplant)
  • Throw all your veggies into a pot, and boil with 4-5 cups of water 
  • When the veggies are cooked, add in your secret sauce (the sambar powder), the mashed dal, and add more salt and water as needed
  • The mixture should have a soup-like consistency 
  • Bring to a boil, add in cilantro 
  • Eat up! 

Idli Recipe

My recipes for idlis are super lazy; I just get an organic instant idli mix and then use the idli plate to serve it up. If you’ve got the time, here are a few excellent and healthy recipes to follow.

Where to Buy Your Spices

If you enjoy South Indian cooking or just generally cooking with spices, make sure to visit Diaspora — they are reframing the colonization of the Indian subcontinent by building a better and more equitable spice trade. Diaspora sources India’s freshest heirloom and single-origin spices, directly from Indian farmers and ships across the USA. As of 2021, they are working with 12 farmers and 320+ farm workers across six states. Plus, they pay farm partners an average 6x more than the commodity price, and by the end of this year, aim to provide health insurance to every single farm worker that is part of their rapidly growing supply chain. And honestly, they are delicious and always take my recipes to a new level of flavor.

Aneesha Rao is the Head of Growth at Coop Home Goods, a company focused on ensuring every person has a good night’s sleep ahead of them. Having previously founded Lantera Labs — a startup focused on redistributing access to technology education, she has worked across e-commerce sectors, and has worked with and for organizations like Google, Outdoor Voices, Capital One, Side Real Estate, the City of Richmond, and more.

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