Arey O Samba! Who invented Sambar?

Thanjavur, he was served with a new dish, either invented by an unknown royal chef, or Shahaji himself, and from then on, the item came to be called Sambar, after the guest.

Published: 27th April 2021 07:16 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th April 2021 07:16 AM   |  A+A-

Image of sambar under preparation used for representational purpose (File | EPS)

Being passionate about cooking since long, I have been interested in knowing the antiquity of all ethnic food items, which still remain a part of our daily meal. Pappu Pulusu, or simply Pulusu, is a delicacy of the Andhra cuisine; but the name is less known outside the region. On the contrary, Sambar, which has always been considered as part of Tamil cuisine, is well known worldwide. Though the names differ, both items are prepared nearly with the same ingredients, like pigeon peas, a variety of vegetables, and of course, the main ingredient, tamarind paste, and also a bit of jaggery. While reading classical Telugu literature, I paid little attention to either Pulusu or Sambar, perhaps because both are too common within South Indian food culture to take any special note. Anyway, let me now bring forth a simple question: Who invented Sambar? 

According to an account that is widely in circulation both in print and more so in social media, Sambar was invented in the royal kitchen of Shahaji I (r. 1684–1712), the son of Ekoji (r. 1676–1684), the founder of the Maratha rule at Thanjavur. Apparently, when Samba or Sambhaji (b. 14 May 1657), the eldest son and successor (r. 16 January 1681–11 March 1689) of Chhatrapati Shivaji of the Maratha Empire, had come to Thanjavur, he was served with a new dish, either invented by an unknown royal chef, or Shahaji himself, and from then on, the item came to be called Sambar, after the guest. This story has a few different versions in which a few ingredients differ, but the end product remains the same, Sambar. Though it appears to be a ‘well-cooked’ item, is it true? Isn’t this a recently fabricated urban legend? 

Tamarind (tamtrini in Sanskrit) must have been used, at least in South Indian cuisine, since time immemorial; for, this sour item has been mentioned in many ancient South Indian poems, verses and even simple, but meaningful, proverbs. For instance, in Telugu, chinta means ‘tamarind’ as well as ‘thought’ and ‘worry’. A near-forgotten proverb, suffused with pun, in the language says, “There is no chinta; if there is no chinta, there is no Pulusu.” Such proverbs, however, cannot be dated, and therefore its antiquity remains unknown. Nevertheless, Srinatha (c.1365-1441), who wrote several long poems and also many Chatu-Padyamulu (impromptu verses) in Telugu, had mentioned, in one verse, a tamarind-based item by name Chaaru, which comprises other ingredients such as pieces of drumstick, onions, black pepper (Miriyanu), etc. The same item is known in Tamil and other languages as Rasam.

The poet says that in the Dravida region, “Served at the very first itself is the Miriyala Chaaru, which sweeps extreme fumes into the ears.” Often, not only tastes differ from person to person, but the sequence in which different items consumed in a meal also varies from region to region. In another verse, the poet mentions an item that is prepared with the sprouting tamtrini leaves and Bachali (Indian spinach) in the Palnadu region of Andhra, and says, “Oh Krishna, you boast of having poison from the bosom of Putana, and gulped easily the raging fires; come now, and swallow this item with the cooked Sorghum, to prove your claims”.

In a Keertana, Tallapaka Annamacharya (22 May 1408–4 April 1503) had compared the fruitful results of one’s own ‘punyam paapam’ (virtue and vice) with “pulusu-teepu-nu-kalapi-bhujichi-natlu” which could be translated as ‘like mixing Pulusu and sweet to consume’; and thus, Annamayya has mentioned one of the delicacies under consideration here. 

Further, Krishna Deva Raya 

(r. 1509–1529) of the Vijayanagara Empire had written a complex poem of seven cantos in Telugu, Amuktamalyada (c.1517), which I had translated into English, and published in 2010. A verse from the poem (II. 98), in my translation, goes as follows: “Out of affection, his devoted wife has packed in a sack/ Porivillimgaayas, old rice cleared of chaff suitable for pouring in hot water/ Sambar ingredients packed in separate packs, jaggery, tamarind paste/ Cumin seeds mixed in jaggery, cooking utensils, dry grass tied to the yoke/ Cow ghee in small kettles, dry cow dung cakes for burning, curd-vadiyamulu/ Orugulu soaked in water, pulses and puja-box for the worship of Vishnu!”

Thus, the verse mentions “sambarampuchintapandu” along with many other ingredients, which in my understanding means, ‘the ripe tamarind mixed with all ingredients to prepare sambar (not saambar)’. A well-known Telugu-to-Telugu dictionary, Sabdaratnakaramu, of Bahujanapalli Sitaramacharyulu (1827–1891), and a comprehensive Telugu commentary on the poem published (1927) by Vedam Venkataraya Sastri (1853–1929) also interprets the stanza in the same way. Therefore, Sambar must have been prepared as a regular item, much before its earliest known reference in Amuktamalyada of Krishna Deva Raya. In the verse, the wife of Vishnuchitta/Periyazhvar packs the listed items at Srivilliputtur, in Tamil Nadu, and therefore, the emperor-poet seems to suggest that Sambar had been an integral part of Tamil cuisine. 

Perumpanatrupadai, an ancient Tamil classic of the 2nd century CE, mentions a food item that was prepared with the combination of rice, lentils, tamarind pulp and broad bean seeds. Though this reference requires further study to get a better understanding of its actual name, to my mind, the ingredients remind me of the rice-based Sambar Saadam/Annam. 

Srinivas Sistla

Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam



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