As soon as our order arrives at a South Indian restaurant, one parameter that is generally used to assess the authenticity of the food is the sambhar. In conversations too, you would often hear people saying things like, “Iska sambhar zyaada acha tha use”. Such comparative analysis is not a result of ignorance. In fact, it reflects how important a role sambhar plays in any vegetarian South Indian meal even for a non-South Indian. There are no two ways about the essence of coconut and a variety of other chutneys but sambhar continues to hold the supreme pedestal. 

From the Marathas to South

As hard as it may sound, we have to accept the fact that sambhar was not actually South Indian after all. The origins lie in the Maratha kingdom of Tamil Nadu. Not many people know that South India, particularly large parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were under the rule of Shahji, a Maratha ruler and later his son, Venkoji. This expansion of the Maratha kingdom continued till the British arrived to establish colonial rule. 

The influence of Marathas in the southern areas like Thanjauvar led to the introduction of sambhar in the region. However, it isn’t that simple a story. History tells us that Marathas were fond of eating amti, a kind of moong dal that is prepared using kokum. Due to the lack of availability of kokum in the region, the search for a new souring agent began. 

Experimentation And Necessity 

Well, it is quite rightly said that “Necessity is the mother of invention” and this perfectly fits the bill in case of sambhar. Tell tales and legends trace the origins to the time when Sambhaji, the son of Shivaji, entered the kitchen to make some amti since his cook was on leave. The search hunt for the right ingredients ended when we used toor dal instead of the usual moong dal and replaced the souring agent, kokum with tamarind pulp. 

Not really sure of how the dish would turn out, he asked his court to taste and seems like luck was in his favour because everyone loved the watery and tangy dal he has prepared. Thus, it was named after Sambhaji and became a South Indian staple in no time. 

One Sambhar, Many Ways

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Today, if you think you’ll get the same kind of sambhar across all the South Indian states, you’re in for some surprise. While what is generally served to us is a Tamilian version of the sambhar, made with dry powders and local vegetables like drumsticks and radish, Kerala and Karnataka do not follow the same. Karnataka’s sambhar gets its flavours, largely from wet pastes and is served during the meal after rasam unlike Tamil Nadu, where vice-versa happens. Kerala’s concoction is replete with sophisticated vegetables like carrots and potatoes. While we are used to a tangy and spicy sambhar, certain places down South relish a sweeter version too. 

Next time you dunk your idlis, dosas and vadas, don’t forget to remember its roots.