This isnt so much about a recipe as about an experience - one that I never, ever, EVER want to undergo again. As far as I'm concerned, it was more traumatic than any other disaster I've had in the kitchen. Yeah, it even beat cakes that wouldnt rise, cakes that looked and tasted like sweetened Fevicol, muffins that refused to part from their cases, rice that congealed into a lump, dosa batter that over-fermented and bubbled over spectacularly all over the kitchen counter and thence to the floor with a smell reminiscent of damp rotting garbage... and so on. Those disasters, difficult as they were to deal with, were restricted to me and my ego - they didn’t affect anyone else. Especially physically.
But the occasion I'm talking about very nearly forced us to evacuate the house, it was that bad. Let me start at the beginning, though. Ever since I saw Sra’s sambar kaaram post on her blog When My Soup Came Alive, I’d been wanting to make it. It sounded like just the thing – versatile enough to be used as molagapodi or as emergency seasoning/added flavour for vegetables and so on.
The first item on her list of ingredients was dry red chillies. Now I only had fiery little red chillies, not the long, less hot ones that are more commonly used in Indian kitchens. I’d been looking for the latter, but for some reason they’re not available on the online grocery shop I use or in the Indian shop in Telford. The only other place I knew of was Birmingham, and it certainly wasn’t worth the trip there for just one item.
Anyway, the chillies I had were termed “extra hot chillies” – but they didn’t have a more specific name. I suspect they were birds eye chillies, because they were less than an inch long. I wasn’t going to make sambar kaaram in the quantities specified by Sra, so I scaled down the recipe to more manageable proportions – and cut down on the little red devils even more, knowing how potent they were.
Dry-roast the ingredients separately, the instructions said. The first item was the chillies. At this point, I should have foreseen what would happen – and if any of you would have realised it, if you were in my position, hats off to you. I guess I didn’t have my thinking cap on that day. So what I did was throw about 1/8 cup of the little dry red chillies in my hot pan and start dry-roasting them.
I had taken the precaution of shutting the doors and windows and turning on the extractor fan, so I wasn’t too worried about any fumes affecting Pete. I expected some fumes, because dry-roasting red chillies always releases fumes, but I was confident of being able to handle it without much trouble.
Within a few moments, though, it felt like the air in the kitchen had been replaced with some toxic gas. The fumes from the chillies were extremely potent – I could hear Pete coughing in the next room. I didn’t want to open the kitchen door to go out because I knew the fumes would escape out there, making it even worse for Pete. So I turned off the heat, hoping that the air would soon clear. But it just seemed to get worse, and every breath I took felt like I was drawing fire into my lungs. I was coughing so hard that I couldn’t breathe, and my eyes were stinging. I opened the window to let in fresh air, but that didn’t help either. I had panicky thoughts of the fumes getting into my neighbour’s garage and affecting them as well, imagining that they would alert the police about poison gas and I'd be arrested as a terrorist for attempted biological warfare or for disturbing the peace or poisoning the neighbours or something. I know it sounds ridiculous and exaggerated, but those fumes were no joke, believe me.
Eventually I had to get out of the kitchen, and it DID affect the other rooms when I opened the door to get out – but it wasn’t as strong out there as it was inside. Besides, we fled upstairs after opening the doors to the conservatory and the back garden. Still, it took a couple of hours before I could muster up the courage to re-enter the kitchen and even then the residual fumes started me coughing again.
I’m not kidding when I say that chemical warfare had nothing on those red chillies – they would be a cheap, deadly and most effective way to incapacitate any enemy… as long as you could ensure that the fumes didn’t get back to you!
That was a lesson learnt the hard way… but those are the lessons that you never forget, right? I treat those little red bombs with the greatest respect now.
So did I throw them away? Not on your Nellie, not after all the trouble I’d gone through! I made the sambar kaaram, and it was as tasty as I’d imagined it on reading Sra’s recipe. Of course it was hideously hot despite my having reduced the amount of chillies when I scaled down the ingredients... so I had to repair it by adding more of the other items on the list.
Oh, other than reducing the quantities used, I haven’t changed Sra’s recipe or instructions.
Recipe for: Sambar kaaram
Dry red chillies: 50 gm
Coriander seeds: 25 gm
Fenugreek/Methi seeds: 5 gm
Cumin/jeera seeds: 5 gm
Black gram/urad dal: 10 gm
Salt, to taste
Garlic cloves: to taste (I used 10 fat cloves for a very garlicky taste)
1. Dry roast the first five ingredients separately.
2. Let cool and grind to a powder, then add salt.
3. Crush garlic roughly, add to the powder and run it in the grinder again.
4. Store in an airtight container.