Worry not, there’s nothing like a perfect bowl of sambar

How sambar, the syncretic South Indian broth, has come to define the region’s food despite variations across the five states

My mad-about-food father has a rule of thumb when appraising the merits of south Indian restaurants. If they could get their sambar right, they could be reasonably trusted not to mess up much else on the menu.

His ‘Sambar Test’ has served me pretty well. As with most things simple and elegant, the sambar too demands craftsmanship and attention to detail of a fairly high order.

The ubiquitous sambar, a syncretic south Indian broth that now defines the region’s food for those outside, is worthy of the fuss.

Powder power

The importance of sambar in the life of South Indians in general and Tamil Brahmins in particular cannot be overstated. A Tamil kitchen cannot be fully functional in the absence of the sambar powder. For one, its versatility is unmatched. It can be the base spice mix for rasam, a host of other semi-gravyish kootus, and used for almost every crisply stir fried vegetable poriyal.

The sun drying of the whole spices, milling and packing vast quantities of sambar powder for family members who have flown far away from the nest is a favourite ritual among Tamil mothers. My brother who made a fleeting visit to Chennai from the US recently, took back with him three kilos. My aunt, a Delhi resident for nearly 40 years, packs a full year’s supply of sambar powder on her annual trips to Chennai. I often wondered if the very purpose of her Grand Trunk Express cross country expedition was to replenish condiments and pickle stocks rather than meeting relatives.

Not surprisingly, Gemini Ganesan, the lone Brahmin in the frontline of Tamil film heroes in the 1950s and 1960s was the holder of the popular nickname ‘sambar’.

The gleeful Tamil Brahmin jump, on to this gravy train, is somewhat surprising.

As with most things simple and elegant, the sambar too demands craftsmanship and attention to detail of a fairly high order

There are two major storylines, with minor variations, about the origins of the sambar. One, it was invented by Sambhaji, the son of Shivaji, who when pottering around in royal kitchens in the absence of chefs decided to make an experimental batch of the Maharashtrian dal, aamti, using tamarind in lieu of kokam, the traditional souring agent. When the king himself is the creator, there is little chance of it not being billed a masterpiece.

Two, it was made by the Thanjavur Maratha ruler Shahuji for the delectation of the visiting Sambhaji, not just the head of Maratha empire but also a cousin, and named it Sambar to honour him.

The problem with the first theory is that if true, sambar would have been a thing in Maharashtra. It isn’t.

Irrespective of the version you want to believe, two reasonable conclusions can be arrived at. One, the first pot of sambar was stirred by a Maratha hand. Two, by the standards of culinary history, the 17th century sambar is a fairly recent arriver.

Schools of sambar

Despite the Brahmin embrace, they don’t consider sambar traditional enough. The Brahmin shrarddha ritual feast eschews ingredients not considered ‘indigenous’ or sattvik such as chillies, crystal sugar, asafoetida, toor dal, root vegetables and ‘English’ vegetables such as carrots, beans or cabbage. The sambar doesn’t make the cut here.

Therefore, a debate around a perfect bowl of sambar needn’t involve hoary traditions or claims of entho-linguistic ‘ownership’.

Broadly speaking, there are two schools of sambar among the four southern linguistic regions. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Its present day currency in Kerala and Andhra notwithstanding, the sambar is fairly peripheral in the regions’ culinary scheme of things.

The absolute derision Tamils have for Karnataka sambar is unlikely to change even if the latter promised uninterrupted discharge of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. The ingredients of that disparagement are three. In descending order of intolerance they are jaggery, cinnamon and the flaming red variety of ‘all colour, no heat’ Byadagi chili that is used. The end product is considered an effete attempt at replicating the ‘real’ thing.

The world of commerce offers us further proof. Tamil Nadu is far and away the largest consumer of packaged masalas in India with annual sales in the vicinity of Rs 2000 crore. Of that, packaged sambar powder accounts for about 10%. The Bengaluru-based MTR foods is the largest seller of south Indian packaged food products. But higher scovilles seeking Tamil Nadu proved to be the waterloo for its signature sambar powder. MTR’s traditional sambar powder, tailor-made for its home market, contains coriander, red chili, cumin, fenugreek and cassia.

A typical Tamil sambar powder on the other hand includes coriander and chili, in roughly equal quantities, a dash of turmeric, black pepper, cumin, fenugreek (for a hint of textural slipperiness), toor, urad and chana dals, dried ginger and curry leaves. This version is also significantly high on hing. It took MTR until 2015 to research and develop a ‘Madras’ sambar powder that wouldn’t be laughed off the shelves a few miles south east of Electronic City. Now the company even has a spicier variant for the Telugu states that uses Guntur chilies.

I personally like some elements of the Karnatata version – the hint of sweetness to round off the sharp tang of tamarind and the heat of spices, and the deadly red Byadagi chilies that offer a flavour of nuance as opposed to the sweaty, raw heat of Guntur or Ramnad chilies. My parents threatened to stop visiting me in Bengaluru if my sambar powder recipe didn’t do a ghar wapasi. Thankfully, the bonds of family endure. My mother just brings her own podi.

For Tamils, the visual texture is the first point where the sambar begins the process of getting its visa stamped. Runny sambar is renegade sambar. It means its maker hasn’t got the masalas right or scrimped on the toor dal. The pulses perform twin functions. They hold all components together, and balance the acidity of tamarind. This essential idea escapes most sambar makers, especially north of Vindhyas (and no, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and bottle gourd don’t belong in the sambar).

Here’s a Tamil tip. When you dip a piece of idli or dosa into a bowl of sambar, the broth must evenly coat, and a drop drip. If the bit of idly has merely soaked in the tamarind water and has spots of oil, you’ve been sold a dummy. If the sambar passes this test, pour it on the idlis, and ask for another cup.

A watery sambar can ruin your plate of idlies

Quest for the best sambar

In Tamil Nadu, three mass market restaurant versions have come to represent sambar. There is Saravana Bhavan’s somewhat stolid turmeric and toor dal heavy version. Its greatest merit is consistency, the holy grail for any large restaurant chain. Whether you have it in Jafferkhanpet or New Jersey, it tastes pretty much the same. Coimbatore’s iconic Annapoorna’s sambar has greater zing and tastes less industrial than Saravana's. It is also a shade darker, perhaps due to the variety of tamarind it uses or the way the spices are roasted. The purists of the Cauvery delta belt will make a strong and admirable case for smaller players – Tiruvanaikkovil’s (near Trichy) Parthasarathy Vilas, Mayiladuthurai’s Kaliyakudi Hotel and Mayura Lodge (has my approval!) – while groaning about a universal dip in sambar standards.

One of the best one-off sambars I’ve had is indeed from the region. The legendary Carnatic and film singer Sirkazhi Govindarajan’s family throws open the doors of their ancestral home in Sirkazhi, a small temple town in the Nagapattinam district during the annual ‘Tamil Moovar’ music festival that celebrates a trinity of classical Tamil composers Muthu Thandavar (14th century), Arunachala Kavirayar and Marimutha Pillai (18th century). Anyone in town for the festival is welcomed and well fed. More than 20 years ago, I found myself in Sirkazhi as a music correspondent covering the festival. It was pretty late at night and I was in dire need of nourishment after a pretty long bus journey from Chennai. The fare was simple, served on a plate of stitched leaves. A cabbage poriyal, steaming rice, appalam, rasam and pumpkin sambar. It was nectar-like.

For Tamils, the visual texture is the first point where the sambar begins the process of getting its visa stamped. Runny sambar is renegade sambar. It means its maker hasn’t got the masalas right or scrimped on the toor dal

My personal favourite sambar spot in Chennai remains Rathna Café’s flagship eatery in Triplicane. It has the slight coarseness of freshly ground masala, not overloaded with dal or other thickening agents, none of the aromatic spices queering the pitch, piping hot and suitably poured on a plate of idli from a jug-like vessel rather than served in little cups. Oddly enough, Rathna Café’s founder is a man called Jaggilal Gupta from Mathura.

Take that, you snarky peddlers of ‘Amit’ jokes.

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