About every month or so, the Red Herring restaurant transforms itself into a very special Indian restaurant. Simply called “Sambar,” Indian people of all ages – students, professors, families, children – gather in the basement of the Channing-Murray foundation to enjoy some of the best homemade south Indian food available in the area. Sure, there’s always a few in-the-know Western diners at Sambar, but personally, I think Indian food tastes better if enjoyed in the company of Indians.
On Feb. 5, those who showed up were treated to one of the most popular dishes in Southern India – dosas. Since the closing of Far East Fast Food on Green Street, we’ve had to drive all the way to Bloomington’s India Bhavan Restaurant when we wanted a Masala Dosa. So when the Sambar website invited us to sample their Masala Dosas, we were first in line.
A dosa is simply an Indian-style crepe made with rice and lentil flour. The dosa can be stuffed with all types of fillings, but the Masala version is one of the most popular. Stuffed with potatoes and onions and secret Indian spices, this dish is crunchy on the outside and pleasantly mushy on the inside. Topped with coconut chutney, the slightly sweet and spicy flavors meld perfectly in your mouth. As good as the Sambar’s dosas were, we still miss the giant two-foot version we get in restaurants. Well, when it comes to taste, size doesn’t really matter does it?
Another standard on the all-vegetarian Sambar menu is the Thali, a combination of seasonal goodies from the kitchen. This evening’s Thali featured a coconut-flavored zucchini kootu and a sambar-style dal (a lentil-style pea stew) along with rice. We finished off our meal with Mango Kulfi, an ice cream-like dessert infused densely with mango flavor. Each Sambar menu varies slightly but it’s the desserts that bring back the fondest memories. Past Sambar menus have surveyed almost the entire range of Indian desserts including our favorite—Gulab Jamun, deep-fried little morsels soaking in a sugary syrup.
Sambar is run by volunteers from the local University of Illinois chapter of Asha for Education, a non-profit organization that supports educational initiatives in India. Being a volunteer-run kitchen, the service is not always efficient. But the wait for the food is worth it. Besides, you’re getting a great homemade meal for a reasonable price while helping support Asha’s missions.
The local Asha chapter has sponsored projects that have helped shelter and educate deaf, speech-impaired and mentally disabled children in India. They’ve also sponsored a major project in Mumbai to stop the trafficking of children of sex workers by helping to protect and educate the children and their mothers. Asha UIUC received the 2007 Champaign-Urbana International Humanitarian Award for an astounding $15,000 contribution to the Mumbai project. Check for future Sambars at ashasambar.blogspot.com, get some great south Indian food and help out a good cause at the same time.
Sambar at The Red Herring Restaurant
in the basement of the Channing-Murray Foundation
1209 W. Oregon St.