Former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was very particular about his breakfast. While attending the UN General Assembly in New York, Rao was not impressed with the breakfast menu at his swanky hotel. He asked his cook travelling with him to rustle up some idli and sambar.
The American cooks were horrified by the sight and taste of the spicy broth that the Indian head of state wanted to drink up at 7am. But Rao was neither embarrassed nor apologetic about his love for sambar. Sambar is a core issue for those of us born south of the Narmada River.
Melting pot: Indians born south of the Narmada have an abiding love for sambar, the spicy broth that is served as an accompaniment to many of their dishes
My father recounts that when he first came to Delhi in 1952, he pined for South Indian food. Friends recommended he visit the iconic Madras Hotel in Connaught Place where all South Indians got their idli fix in a city that is more or less an extension of the state of Punjab. While he was dunking his idli in sambar, served in a small steel bowl, he saw a Sikh gentleman order five bowls of sambar for two idlis, at no extra cost. Mr Bhatt, the owner of the restaurant told my father, "Sir, I welcome people asking me for more sambar because once they get hooked on to sambar, they come back for more idlis and vadas."
Sadly, Madras hotel closed down a few years ago, and now just about half a dozen restaurants serve authentic sambar. People who live north of the Vindhyas are hardly aware of the delicate and aromatic differences between the sambar made in Udupi (Karnataka), and the one made in Tamil Nadu.
South Indians might debate hotly about the origins of sambar, but Maharashtrians claim that it was Sambhaji, the Maratha ruler, who threw into a pot some tuar dal, kokum or tamarind, and a mix of spices -- and thus was born amti or sambar. The sambar of Kerala and Karnataka often has coconut or copra in it, because the fruit grows there. In Tamil Nadu, the sambar is thinner in consistency and sharper in taste. A variation is kuzhambu, which is also seen in Sri Lanka and Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries.
Then there is the dispute over what vegetables should be put in sambar. Udupi sambar has drumsticks and shallots in it; Tamil sambar has brinjal and ladyfinger; Kerala sambar has yam, ash-gourd, pumpkin and even potatoes; Andhra sambar is spicy, and has bottle gourd and beans. The rules for acceptable vegetables change every 10 miles. North Indians add cauliflower and the yuppies add broccoli, which you must reject if you see it.
Then there are the divisions between Brahmin and non-Brahmin sambars. Prawns and mushrooms can be added to the latter version. The sambar made by Brahmins like the Namboodris are traditionally less spicy, and veer towards Satvik, foods that evoke divinity.
Confused? I don't blame you. South Indians are fanatical about the spices that go into the sambar pudi (powder). Before packaged sambar powder was available, mothers would lovingly roast and grind the spices (mustard, coriander, fenugreek seeds, dried whole red chillies, black and white pepper, cinnamon, asafoetida and curry leaves) at home.
South Indian soldiers would pack sambar powder made by their mothers to their frontier postings, and add it to any dal cooked in the canteen. The Defence Food Research Laboratory came up with a formula to pre-cook South Indian food and hygienically pack it. The iconic Mavalli Tiffin Room (MTR) restaurant of Bangalore was given this recipe, and life changed for South Indians around the globe.
Sambar was available from Bombay to Burkina Faso, and it tasted the same. Well, almost the same. Another South Indian Prime Minister, Deve Gowda, used to complain about food in Delhi not being up to the mark. His favourite ragi mudde, (an odd looking idli made out of millet) used to be flown in from Bangalore, else we had one unhappy Prime Minister in the South block. Sambar is so versatile that it isn't just a breakfast broth or dinner dish. Its low glycemic index makes sambar a good diet food. Go for it.
Smita Prakash is Editor (News) at Asian News International. Follow her on twitter @smitaprakash