The Fragrance of South Indian cooking: Sambhar


India's many kitchens

What we somewhat inaccurately call 'Indian cuisine' is actually just as diverse as the subcontinents jumble of cultures, traditions and its wildly varied landscapes.

In all regions, cooks use local vegetables, herbs and spices and the food is heavily influenced by the particular regions cultural and religious traditions. Vegetarian food (including sambhar) is the rule rather than the exception in the Hindu-dominated south, where people follow the Hindu regulations to show respect and compassion for all living beings and live in harmony with nature. Bluntly, we can say that in South India, rice, tamarind and coconut are the staple foods, whereas in northern India the food typically uses wheat (think naan and chapatti) and potatoes. South Indian curries are stronger, more seasoned and more liquid. South Indian food is more quickly prepared than north Indian, and is eaten as light snacks called tiffins. Frequent, small meals is the characteristic eating pattern of the hot regions in South India.

The king's food

Sambhar is a heady mixture of tastes, colours and fragrances. Food you can eat with your eyes and nose before it hits your taste buds. Essentially a vegetable stew, sambhar gets its unmistakable character from the toasted spices, the many different types of lentils (dal) and the tangy sweet tamarind paste.

A legend says that the first sambhar was prepared at the court in Tamil Nadu, a day when the king himself decided to experiment in the kitchen with terrible results. A single brave chef with good taste stepped forward and suggested adding tamarind to the stew thereby saving the day (and the dish). The dish was called sambhar in honour of the king's guest that day, Marathas Emperor Sambhaji. Less adventurous explanations connect sambhar with the old tamil word chaampu (coconut and spices dissolved in tamarind paste).

... And the peoples food

Royal roots or not, today sambhar is the peoples food, treasured throughout South India. It is eaten at home and on the street, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. As with folk food dishes all over the world the recipe is in no way fixed. The spice mixtures used have almost as many variations as there are cooks. Common ingredients are red chili, mustard seeds and asafoetida. The latter is, as the botanical savvy will know is the dried resin from the ferula plant's rhizome, which brings the three basic tastes - salty, sweet and strong - in balance and harmony and enhances the food's aroma. Depending on the region, family traditions and chef's imagination you can add fenugreek, coriander, cumin, black pepper, cinnamon and other spices.

We have blended our own sambhar of organic cumin, coriander, black pepper, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, chilli powder, asafoetida and turmeric. Use it in our Sambhar recipe - and why not venture out in a true South Indian tiffin style with a breakfast of dosa and sambhar?