Essay: Six hundred ways to make sambar!

Updated on Feb 24, 2022 05:18 PM IST
From sambar’s Maratha origins - legend has it that it was concocted in the Thanjavur kitchen of Shahuji Bhonsale and named after Shivaji’s son Sambhaji who couldn’t get enough of it on a visit - to its numerous varieties that differ from state to south Indian state and community to community, a look at this popular dish.
The perfect south Indian breakfast: Idlis with a bowl of sambar on the side. (Shutterstock)
The perfect south Indian breakfast: Idlis with a bowl of sambar on the side. (Shutterstock)
ByDevanshi Mody

It is April 2013. My brother and I are at Carnoustie Resort in north Kerala. Coming from Chennai, we have found the sambar at lunch lacklustre. Then, one day, the sambar suddenly bristles with flavour. “Did a Tamil make today’s sambar?” I query. The restaurant manager says their chefs prepare authentic Kerala sambar. I am uncompelled. So the F&B Manager is summoned. He maintains that we are in Kerala and the resort offers Kerala sambar. I remain sceptical. So the Executive Chef is invoked. He booms authoritatively, “Of course this is a Tamil sambar. I am Tamil and I make Tamil sambar in my kitchen!”

That the disputed sambar is Tamil is established. That the Executive Chef (in 2013) was perhaps on leave on days when the listless Kerala sambar sneaked out onto our table is likely. That the Malayali is as patriotic about the Kerala sambar as a Tamil is about the Tamil sambar is evident (alright, that’s an exaggeration for anyone who has lived in Tamil Nadu will tell you NOBODY is prouder of their cuisine than the Tamils - especially about sambar!). But the complicated question now is: What precisely is “Tamil” sambar; or indeed “Kerala” sambar, “Karnataka” sambar, “Andhra” sambar?

When we relocate to Chennai from abroad we remark that the flat opposite and the ones below ours do not emanate the strong, warm fragrance of freshly-made breakfast sambar every morning. This should have signified that the occupants of those flats aren’t Tamil. Indeed, they are from Andhra and Kerala. Now we can sniff out our neighbours’ ethnicity based on the matinal waft of sambar from their homes and if they prepare sambar EVERY morning then they are generally not only Tamil but Tamil Brahmins, of the most orthodox sort. Sambar can be a useful instrument for cultural auscultation…

It can also help consolidate friendships I discover when a Brahmin lady during the fabled Music Festival at Chennai’s Music Academy whisks me home for New Year’s Day lunch. Here, I experience the satvik sambar, sans onions and garlic, subtle but distinguished. It beggars sambars at Chennai’s exalted 5 Star hotels.

The peerless sambar. (Shutterstock)
The peerless sambar. (Shutterstock)

My fascination with sambar grows after visiting Mantra Veppathur in Kumbakonam in 2015, which offers sambars made with vegetables from their own gardens.

At Svatma, a stringently all-vegetarian hotel in Thanjavur, there is a systematic presentation of seven thalis with seven distinct sambars having names and unique identities: arachuvitta sambar, pitlai sambar, kadhamba sambar, chinna vengayam and murungai sambar (shallots and drumstick), keeraithandu sambar (spinach), mullangi sambar (raddish) and the extraordinary mochaikottai sambar in which white kidney beans wallow like fat slugs.

The staggering truth about sambar’s origins is revealed to me by Svatma’s owner, Bharatnatyam dancer and architect Krithika Subrahmanian. Apparently, something as quintessentially south Indian as sambar wasn’t created by south Indians at all. Sambar, as we know it (question is, do we really know it?), is presumptively a legacy of the Marathas who ruled Thanjavur.

The story goes that sambar was concocted in the Thanjavur kitchen of Maratha King Shahuji Bhonsale (son of Ekoji who founded the Maratha Dynasty of Thanjavur) when His Royal Highness, who dabbled in cooking, was trying his hand at the Marathi dish amti which requires kokum. Kokum, alas, was out of stock (it happens, even in royal courts...) so the palace cooks, or indeed Shahuji himself, ventured an experiment, replacing kokum with tamarind. This creation was served to Shivaji’s son Sambhaji when he visited Thanjavur. He deemed it terrific! The kitchen experiment gained tremendous popularity and was christened “sambhar” after its most ardent patron Sambhaji.

But if the Marathas ostensibly invented sambar then the Tamils innovated on it.

“It” refers to something vast and nebulous, varying not just across southern India or regions within a state or from street to street but from home to home. And yet, there is something that is distinctly “sambar.” But which one? How does one chronicle something as amorphous as sambar? Unlike dal makhani, which varies little, sambar, in its scope, is like a set of Russian dolls enclosing subset within subset of permutations and combinations, each acquiring an identity and a name and developing into a different variety of sambar.

There isn’t even any specific “breakfast sambar.” For instance, when we visit Svatma in April we relish a breakfast sambar that is a limpid delicacy, contrasting with sugar-laden “commercial” sambars at most hotels, replaced on a subsequent visit by a saltier, stockier, sultrier one with needlessly bold flavours. When we rue the older sambar, asking if South Indian Speciality Chef Samyappan is away, we are told, “There are so many different tiffin sambars” (tiffin sambar is one accompanying idlis, dosas, vadais, as opposed to rice).

One afternoon, we find ourselves presented a spectacular virundhu sappadu. Krithika Subrahmanian has expressly dispatched her star chef Vignesh from Chennai to craft us this feast featuring the pitlai sambar. Vignesh serves an archetypal “TamBrahm” or Tamil Brahmin sambar. He explains that an ostentatious number of items on the banana leaf betoken wealth. So, at weddings, the number of vegetables in the sambar escalates. Vignesh’s sambar has seven vegetables. He really wants to impress us! Moreover, it has clean, clear flavours with a certain purity about them. Vignesh effervesces as he discloses the intricacies of the composition -roasted spices, roasted coconut, tamarind… and then aborts his discourse to gape in astonishment as we guzzle bowl after bowl of sambar, as if it were chilled lemonade on a sweltering afternoon. He avows that Aruntony, the steward serving us at Svatma, alerted him not to cook too much, “They eat very little.” He never anticipated such gluttonous attacks on his sambar.

Back in Chennai, Krithika conjures a fiesta of sambars at her home. That there is something almost sacred about sambar is evinced as the evening inaugurates with a rendition of sacred chants. Then, with aplomb, Krithika unveils five sambars to acquaint me with the prosody, as it were, of TamBrahm sambars and their complex nuances. Initiating proceedings: chinna vengaya sambar served with paruppu rice and urulai roast. The vengaya sambar, Krithika says, is amongst Tamil Nadu’s favourite sambars. It is also considered the “hip” sambar because it has something of the thrill of transgression about it, given that its star ingredient, shallots, is prohibited amongst immaculate Brahmins. The “sinful” sambar, however, is now entrenched at Sunday brunch amongst the decadent ones. And can even incite conjugal troubles, Krithika says, for when a newly-wed wife hazards her variation on the recipe, she invariably invokes the ire of her mother-in-law and husband savagely loyal to mummy’s recipe!

The shallot is the star ingredient of the vengaya sambar. (Shutterstock)
The shallot is the star ingredient of the vengaya sambar. (Shutterstock)

Intriguing how sambar can prove a marital obstruction - Svatma’s manager avowed he told his Kannada fiancé in consternation, “How can I marry you when you will make Karnataka-style sweet sambar and I like Tamil sambar?” He married upon the assurance that his fiancé was a Gowda and Gowda sambar was spicy!

Krithika warns me against helping myself to seconds as we have sambars galore to come. The second sambar arrayed is an unusual bitter gourd pagarkai pitlai accompanied by coconut rice. This pitlai sambar is more robust and tangier than the one Vignesh served at Svatma. Pitlai is characterised by a mildly spicy tamarind gravy similar to arachuvitta sambar, Krithika explains, but is enhanced with roasted spices and roasted coconut. Pitlai is perhaps the most elaborate in the pantheon of sambars and therefore features on a banana leaf at a marriage feast. It suddenly strikes me that my mother has been unwittingly making pitlai sambar all along!

The exotic poosunikai kadala sambar courted by zesty, summery lemon sevai and comprising white pumpkin, peanut, tamarind and - surprise, surprise - fresh-ground sambar masala, is a creation by Krithika’s charming mother. I marvel that I have never had sambar studded with the amazing crunch of peanuts and Krithika’s mother effuses but of course this is an esoteric speciality of Pondicherry where she comes from. “You wouldn’t find this sambar in Thanjavur!” She elaborates that sambar recipes are handed down from generation to generation, like a legacy, to be preserved for posterity - unless, some upstart newly-wed wife decides to improve upon her mother-in-law’s recipes, that is! An obedient daughter-in-law, Krithika’s mother reminisces how she adapted to her in-law’s culinary customs whilst retaining recipes inherited from her own mother.

Next, I discover kai Thiruvathiraisambar served with kali, a delicacy of broken rice, jaggery, moong dal, cardamom, nuts and coconut offered Lord Nataraja on Arudra Darsanam Day. As for the Thiruvathirai Sambar, it is specially prepared for Thiruvathirai, a festival commemorating the day Lord Siva performed the Tandava. Comprising the usual fresh-ground spices and coconut, this sambar, stupendously flavoursome, is also known as seven kari kootu, kuzhambu or thalagam, for it is like a mixed vegetable curry, a veritable extravaganza of seven naatu kaigaris (country vegetables) such as mochai (broad beans), karuna kizhangu (yam), sakkarai valli kizhangu (sweet potato), seppan kizhangu (taro), parangikai (pumpkin), avarakkai (cluster beans), vazhaikkai (raw banana). Krithika’s mum says that despite efforts to make this choice sambar regularly, somehow it is only ever prepared for Thiruvathirai.

Finally, Vignesh who promised me an arachuvitta sambar, serves one with thairsadam. The arachuvitta sambar, without onion and garlic, with an ensnaring redolence and reverberation of flavours, is the traditional Tambrahm sambar. “Arachuvitta” means fresh-ground and arachavittu masala, which ennobles aroma, texture and flavour, is imperative to this variety of sambar. But renegade or rigorously traditional, every Brahmin household is committed to home-ground sambar podi of which they are ferociously proud: packet masala is sacrilege.

Krithika asks which sambar is best. Delicate question. “Well, they are all so splendid, you will have to invite me over for another assessment before I can deliver an informed verdict…” I wink.

Krithika’s Group General Manager K Sridhar, himself a chef, discloses they run a marriage hall so I wonder if they’d care to send me snippets of wedding sambars. “Sri” regards me stunned. It’s as if I’d blasphemed. The excellence of wedding sambar lies in being made in large proportions; reducing portions to make samples impairs flavour. He won’t even brook reheating sambar: desecrates taste and texture. “Sambar must be had hot and fresh!”

We swing from the sublime to the ridiculous when Krithika presents the “corporate sambar” which her delicatessen Svah delivers. But this “corporate” elai sapadu plated on plastic is solicited for board meetings and after poojas (of which there are lots of in Tamil Nadu).

Grand Dame of Chettinadu Cuisine Mrs Meenakshi Meyyappan of The Bangala makes the startling revelation that the mighty repertory of Chettinadu cuisine doesn’t have its own sambar! “The Chettiars originally only made ketti kozhambus – dals were expensive.” Bastion of Chettinadu cuisine, The Bangala actually uses a sambar recipe from Madurai/Tirunelveli, referred to in The Bangala Table cook book. “Tambrahm sambhars are more flavourful,” she confesses.

The Bastion of Chettinadu cuisine, The Bangala uses a sambar recipe from Madurai/Tirunelveli, referred to in The Bangala Table cook book
The Bastion of Chettinadu cuisine, The Bangala uses a sambar recipe from Madurai/Tirunelveli, referred to in The Bangala Table cook book

That beyond the Tambrahm sambar others exist I am reminded in Kodaikanal, not somewhere traditionally associated with sambar. The Tamara Kodai’s buoyant Executive Chef Prince J, hailing from Dindigul, known for its biriyani, not sambar, is massively creative. An authority on diverse cuisines from Japanese to Jaipuri, he displays prowess at sambar too. One morning, as we breakfast al fresco on terraces overlooking green-draped hills, he manifests bearing fluffy tufts of yellow Kanchipuram idli. He heard that I am on a sambar quest and so rustled up some sambars including Andhra Mess sambar, Kerala sambar, kalyana sambar and thakkali sambar. The last is a light sambar with skipping lissom flavours. Captivated, I enquire into it. “Oh, that’s the tadal sambar,” Chef says nonchalantly. “Tadal?” I ask curiously. “Well, yes, that’s the emergency sambar - if you are rushed then you throw some dal and tomato into the pressure cooker and whip up this emergency sambar,” he explains. Ah, so besides “corporate” sambar now there’s even an emergency sambar! Surely this reflects the pace with no peace of our times that sambar has tumbled from something prepared almost devoutly to fast-food that may be flung out of a pressure cooker. Strangely, though, this “emergency” sambar is ludicrously delicious!

Banquet kalyana sambar incorporating seasonal veggies doesn’t quite compare with arachavittu sambar, perhaps because also prepared “tadal” style.

More enticing is the jaggery-laden Mangalore sambar. Whilst I have had a violent distaste for sweet sambars, this one has a pleasingly, teasingly sweet-sour playfulness about it. I strenuously recommend that it be offered at the resort. Chef looks at me aghast, “No, no, our guests would take offence!” I raise an eyebrow. He elucidates, “There is very little dal in the Mangalore sambar so guests would feel insulted that we’ve offered something cheap!” Indeed, in Chennai I have oft heard declamations against “commercial” sambar at hotels substituting pricier toor dal with masoor or moong dal whereas now the trend is to mix pulses in sambars which some claim accentuates flavour, much to the consternation of purists.

Chef says that beyond “commercial” and “corporate,” sambar has even become a carnivorous delight, bobbing with not shallots but shanks, around Madurai and Dindigul, whilst in coastal areas seafood has infiltrated it. The vegetarian in me quakes.

Dosas waiting to be dunked in sambar. (Shutterstock)
Dosas waiting to be dunked in sambar. (Shutterstock)

Chef’s tiffin sambar is sweet and Andhra Mess sambar spicy. His Kerala sambar too is fiery. I remark Kerala sambars I have had have all been rather feeble but Chef insists the cook who prepared this sambar is a Malayali and “He is so Malayali that he keeps trying to toss coconut oil into poriyal and we have to hold him back!” Chef is dismissive of other Kerala sambars. “There is only one way to make Kerala sambar, and this is it.” His Malayali colleague, F&B Manager Sujith, maintains a diplomatic silence. But my Malayali spa therapist Asha at the Tamara Kodai’s Ayurveda Spa takes umbrage, “We have sooooo many different sambars in my home alone.” She enumerates at least six varieties, including one dashed with coconut oil.

It is only at Chennai’s ITC Grand Chola’s Cafe Mercara Express that I learn that ALL Kerala sambars contain coconut oil. Here, Chef Abhishek Mody unbelts yet another five sambars for my perusal, including a Kerala sambar astonishing with seasonal jackfruit. “This sambar varies seasonally year round,” he explains, “and could be created with mango and other fruit.”

“Ghee, jaggery and coconut distinguish a Karnataka sambar,” I am instructed as I savour a mildly-sweetened satvik Udupi sambar, contrasting the pronounced flavours of the gorgeous Mangalore sambar I had in Kodaikanal. This sambar variant, known as “huli,” containing roasted spices and fresh grated coconut ground to a fine paste, differs from Mysuru sambar prepared with powdered spices like Tamil sambar. “The magic lies in adding this paste to boiling lentils!”

Next, Andhra Munaga akulu sambar presents itself canopied in a web of drumstick leaves. It doesn’t have hing but has roasted red chilli tossed in gingelly oil. Most 5-Star hotels will deny there is something such as Andhra sambar, peddling as they are the Andhra Pappu, a sturdy, placid combination of lentils and vegetables on their menus. However, the Andhra sambar exists and can be garlic-flecked and feisty. Yet, Telugu Brahmin sambar is as innocuous as Kerala Namboodiri sambar on an Onam sadhya, which I now learn is called “varutharacha sambar.” Kerala sambar, often stout like gravy, Chef reveals can sometimes be splashed with coconut milk as in the Nair sambar, a unique preparation with drumsticks, raw bananas, variety beans, green cashews and coconut milk.

Kerala sambar remains a mystery. I wonder if the one my grandmother, living in Sri Lanka, invented, playing with locally available ingredients like coconut milk, masoor dal and seven country vegetables, has a prototype somewhere in Kerala.

“Are there 600 ways to make sambar?” Rohini Priyanka Chandrasekaran, Malayali co-owner of Coco Jaunt 1862, a popular cafe in Chennai, asks me incredulously. “I know only one - the Kerala sambar I make for Onam. But don’t tell Senthil,” she says, referring to the cafe’s Tamil co-owner and Executive Chef, “Or he will create 599 sambars for you to write about!” I have no doubt the supremely enterprising Senthil Ekambaram will. But that’s another story!

This Sambar Saga recalls what legendary Chef Praveen Anand, who created the iconic South Indian specialist restaurant Dakshin in Chennai over 30 years ago, once told me. Deeply philosophical about food, he correlated the gourmet with Vedic gunas and revealed that white, light mor or buttermilk corresponds to Satva guna; translucent but coloured and already troubled rasam corresponds to Raja guna whilst sambar, turgid with vegetables, spices and what not, reflects the tenebrous Tamo guna. The wise would not waste their words or their while investigating sambar!

After reading physics, French and philosophy at Oxford, Devanshi Mody gadded about the globe until her parents wearied of funding her errancy. And so, she stumbled quite fortuitously into travel writing.

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