Onion Sambal

Onion Sambal 150 150 David Rosengarten


One of my favorite side dishes in the old Indian-American menu was the onion sambal: bits of raw onion tossed with lemon juice, spices and tomato paste. Long before anyone in the U.S. ever put tamarind chutney or coriander sauce next to the pappadams and samosas that open an Indian meal, restaurants were offering onion sambal alongside them. But there is no standard style of onion sambal in America; I’ve seen them go from very tomato-y and almost gritty with spices, to very light and clean. The following sambal is my favorite; with its lemony blast and minimal tomato paste, it’s in the light and clean school.

Makes about 1 cup of onion sambal, a good accompaniment to an Indian meal for 4 diners

1 1/2 cups finely minced onion (see NOTE)
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 firmly packed teaspoon grated lemon zest
5 teaspoons tomato paste
1/4 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more to taste)

1. Place the onion in a mixing bowl immediately after mincing it. Pour the lemon juice over the onion right away; toss to blend.

2. Add the lemon zest, tomato paste, fenugreek, cumin and cayenne. Mix well, until the sambal has a uniform reddish color. Season to taste with salt and serve immediately.

NOTE: This dish is vastly improved if you use sweet onions to make it; the increased sugar and decreased harshness make the dish much more pleasant. These days, most American shoppers have a choice of sweet onions: Vidalia onions from Georgia (springtime), Texas Sweets (springtime), Walla Walla onions from Washington (July), and Maui onions from Hawaii (year-round.) You’ll need about one large one for the 1 1/2 cups of minced onion in this recipe.

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