The glorious cuisine of South India has captured the hearts of foodies all over the world. Bringing delectable seafood delights and coconut-infused vegetarian cuisine to the table, some of the most popular Indian restaurants in the UK are currently serving up specialties from the southern states. But succulent fish stews and creamy coconut curries aside, there is one recipe in India’s deep south that is an absolute kitchen staple - a steaming bowl of sambar.
This dish is extremely popular not only among the southern states, but has made its way to Sri Lanka’s sunny shores, too; and upon examining the recipe, it is not hard to see why it is India’s favourite comfort food – a hot, tangy brothflavoured with the unique taste of tamarind and thickened with lentils and juicy, seasonal vegetables, sambar is the embodiment of a hug in a bowl. And in the case of sambar, just like many of India’s most beloved recipes, this hug has been around for many a long year.
The story of Sambar
It is thought that the roots of sambar lie in Tamil culture but, as with any popular dish, there are many rumours as to its exact origins. One story dictates that sambar was created in the 19th century, in the royal kitchens of the Shahuji I of Thanjavur. As any creative cook knows, sometimes the best results can come from a little experimentation - just take a look at the menus of some of London's best Indian fine dining restaurents if you need proof! The dishes on offer at these establishments take their inspiration from authentic Indian recipes but add a creative, contemporary twist for an added level of sophistication. It is said that sambar was the result of an experimentation with a dish known as amti - tamarind was added for that distinctive tangy flavour and pigeon peas were substituted for mung beans. The result? Sambar was born.
Another story states that Karnataka was the birthplace of sambar, whilst another still agrees that sambar is a Tamil creation but believes it to have come from the ancient Tamil word ‘chaampu’,which was used to describe a paste - the paste made up of tamarind, spices and coconut that forms the base of the dish.
Sambar - what’s involved?
So, how do you make this famous, South Indian specialty? First of all, you need to choose your vegetables. Although dependent on the season, typical choices include okra, carrot, pumpkin, potatoes, aubergine and tomatoes. Onions or shallots are also included in any sambar recipe. However, the real flavour comes from the sambar seasoning - a mix of lentils, tamarind pulp, chillies and a host of spices including fenugreek, asafoetida, curry leaves, cumin, mustard seeds, black pepper and coriander. Warming notes of cinnamon might be included in some regional variations and, as in many dishes found throughout the southern states, coconut is added to the dish in some form, too.
Serve your sambar with a portion of fluffy, white rice and a dollop of creamy, refreshing yoghurt dip. Whether it’s a special occasion or an everyday dinner, there is always a place for sambar at the traditional South Indian table.