Sambars are probably the tastiest lentil stews on the planet. With the tang of tamarind balanced by lentils and divinely flavoured by sambar powder, a good sambar can be slurped up like a soup. Sambars are uncomplicated curries, easily made when you understand the building blocks. If you have learnt to make sour curries (kulambu), all you need to do is to throw in a handful of mashed, boiled tuvar dal and lo behold, the sour curry becomes a sambar. In fact, sambar is still called Paruppu Kulambu (Sour curry with lentils) in pockets of Tamilnadu.
The word ‘Sambar’ is most likely not a Tamil word. For ages, Kulambu was the traditional Tamil dish and not sambar. The prohibitive price of dal did not permit it to be used in daily cooking. The technique of cooking kulambu with dal was probably learned from the Marathas. Experts say the word ‘Sambar’ has been borrowed from Marathi. Tanjore was under the rule of Marathas in the 17th century. Legend has that Sambaji, son of Sivaji, modified a traditional Maharashtra recipe and created the first sambar. Probably apocryphal, but what is true is that the Marathas had a sambar like dish (the Amti) predating sambar.
The building blocks of a Sambar are the sour lentil base, the flavouring and the goodies added. The sourness comes usually from Tamarind, and flavour from Sambar powder. A wide variety of goodies are simmered in this flavoured broth. Sambars are versatile dishes and whole new families of them can be created by small variations of the basic building blocks.
Vary the souring agent and you have Tomato sambar, Mango sambar , Coconut milk sambar (which would be divine with some tamarind added, as done here), More Sambar, lemon sambar etc.
Vary the lentil used and you have Pasi paruppu sambar, Iru paruppu sambar, masoor dal sambar etc.
Vary the flavouring and you have podi potta sambar, araichu vita sambar, pitlai, rasavangi, Gounder sambar, Udupi sambar, Milagu sambar etc
(Tip : Instead of sambar powder, use local spice mixes and you’ll see sambar magically jumping cuisines. For example, mix in a pinch of powdered cinnamon with Tamil sambar powder and you have the Konkani sambar powder .)
Vary the goodies ( or use none) and you have Kadamba sambar, paruppu sambar, keerai sambar, paruppu urundai sambar etc., See Miri’s radish sambar.
Like any recipe, as the sambar moved into different regions, it changed form and moulded itself to accommodate local goodies. When it moved into Tanjore from Maharashtra, it dropped kokkum and took on the easier available tamarind as a souring agent.
Various regional variations of sambar exist within Tamilnadu. For example, in
When sambar moved further west, into Kerala through the Palghat pass, in the cook pots of the migrating Iyers, it morphed to accommodate the easily available coconut and coconut oil. Tamarind trees being uncommon in Kerala, we see Keralite sambars using yogurt, tomato or Kodumpuli as souring agents instead of Tamarind.
4 July 2008 Update : No Kerala sambars are cooked with Kodumpuli argue fellow Kerala bloggers. I'm also unable to find a single vegetarian recipe using this souring agent and it puzzles me - why has this been sidelined in Keralite vegetarian cuisine ? Is it because of its strong association with seafood (so much so that it is called Fish Tamarind ) ? Does anyone know of a vegetarian recipe using Kodumpuli ?
Sambars in Andhra evolved into a thick stew called pappu pulusu ( Lentil - Tamarind ). The technique of cooking vegetables along with tuvar dal characterizes many Andhra sambars.
When sambar moved into Karnataka, Kannadigas found out a way to cook two dishes in one. They let the sambar rest after cooking. It then separates into a thin watery layer and a thick dal-rich bottom layer. They would use the watery top layer as Rasam and the thick bottom layer as sambar - proving the point that rasam is nothing but a clear sambar. Karnataka also gives us the delicious, greenish, Rayar sambar. This is sambar in which dollops of blended cilantro (kothumalli) puree has been added. ( Thanks Hemant, I learnt this first from your post ! )
In Udupi sambar, we find a novel way of using onions. Onions are grilled on a open flame and the charred outer layers are removed. The grilled onion is pureed along with coconut and this paste is added to the sambar to give a unique flavour.
With easy availability of spices, it is not surprising we find cinnamon and clove in Konkani sambars, a combination which would raise the hackles of Tanjore Brahmins. Konkani sambars also substitute the locakky abundant Kokum ( Garcinia Indica / ‘bhirnda‘ or ‘bhinda‘ in Konkani, ‘murugala hannu‘ in Kannada) for tamarind. Moving north to Maharashtra, we bump into the ancestor of Sambar - the Amti. Amti-Bhaat-Bhaji (lentil, rice and vegetable) is the staple diet of Maharashtrians. Amti is very similar to Kannada sambars and like them, uses Cinnamon and cloves for flavouring. Instead of Tamarind, it uses Kokum as a souring agent. ( Thanks Preenu, for correcting me on this )
Further north, we meet another staple, the Tuver-ni-daal (Tuvar dal curry ), one of the pillars of Gujarati diet. This is nothing but sambar with added ginger and green chilli paste. Like the Tamil rasavangis and pitlais, you’ll find whole peanuts in Tuver – ni- daal.
Prepackaged Sambar powder has greatly simplified sambar making and has guaranteed uniformly flavoured sambar. Like any mass produced spice mix, the easy availability of prepackaged sambar powder is fast killing off many delightful regional spice mixes. Though it is a lot less flavourful than fresh ground spices, readymade sambar powder now dominates sambar preparation, with fresh ground spices being reserved for special occasions.
Use the cookbook to create scores of your own sambars – and let me know if you’d like your recipe included here.
Here’s to Sambars – May it continue to delight !