Dad’s side is from Trivandrum in South Kerala and Mom’s side from Pallakad in the North. I’ve mostly been exposed to the culture and food from South Kerala and had the chance to sample flavours from Palakkad, once over lunch with Lalitha Aunty (a superb cook from Mom’s side) who’s from Pallakad. I was quite surprised to see much lighter flavours in her sambar and her cooking instead of the heavy garlicky-feel that I’ve been used to till now
Palakkad is a Tam-Brahm dominated area and I guess the lack of garlic in traditional Palakkad Nair cooking is probably a direct influence due to the demography of the area. We were discussing food and I was also very surprised when Lalitha Aunty told me that she’d been told by her elders in the family that samhbar and rasam weren’t part of traditional Kerala cooking and came in much later. Probably, that’s why sambar and rasam aren’t part of the initial setup of a Kerala Sadya or feast. It’s Parippu (a thickish lentil preparation) that’s served in the beginning along with rice and the other accompaniments. The sambar and rasam come in alongwith the second and third helpings of rice. And I’m very very unsure of where Sambharam fits into all of this
Legend around Sambar
Many history papers seem to suggest that Sambar or Sambhar was the creation of the Marathas of Thanjavur. Who ruled the place in the period from 1674 to around 1799. The Maratha rulers of Thanjavur were cousins of the rulers of the main Maratha empire and they were quite close to each other. The legend around Sambhar is that it was created during the reign of Sahuji 1 Bhosale. When Sambhaji, the eldest son of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the Maratha ruler of that time visited Thanjavur and a big banquet was served in his honour. I’m not sure if the Marathas of Thanjavur were vegetarian or meat-eaters and it’s also a bit unclear if the lentil dish with tamarind (a local souring agent) was made on purpose to showcase brilliance of the local cuisine or tamarind was used as a replacement for kokum (the souring agent of choice in Maharashtra)
The dish was a big hit and then probably named sambhar in honour of Sambhaji. There are other theories too for how Sambar was born, but this one seems to be the most widely accepted one. Vegetarian cooking across entire South India has largely been influenced by Brahmins and temple cuisine. It’s quite possible that the rapid spread of Sambar, over a relatively short period of a couple of centuries (in the larger scheme of things) was due to the spread of Bramhin cooking across various temples. This probably got translated to royal feasts and thus local everyday cooking
Of course, the sambar is now considered home-grown by each state and each community and is a staple across most of South India and everyone makes it their own way. The most famous style of Sambar across the country is now the sweetish-sour Udipi sambar, which became popular with the rise and spread of Kamat hotels across the country. The Tamil sambar is more asafoetida driven and is less sweet. The Andhra sambar is overtly spicy and sour. The Kerala sambar is mildly spiced and very coconutty. There’s much more to Sambhar than just these four generalisations. There’s the Tulu version, the Tam-Brahm version (I’m sure the Iyers and Iyengars have a difference in opinion in sambhar too, alongwith everything else they seem to differ on). There’s also the Konkani version of sambar. And I’m sure like how the dialect in this country changes every 50-odd kolimetres. So does the sambar in South India. Possibly more, as different communities would also have their own version of this wonderful dish
Please do remember Sambhaji the great, the next time you’re having Idli-sambar 😊
Happy hunting and chowder-on!!