Let me get a very problematic opinion out of the way – I think my mother makes the best sambar I have ever tasted. She’s Bengali, and she has always used Everest’s Sambar Masala. Everest’s extremely resplendent ad campaign from my childhood – “Taste mein best, Mummy aur Everest” – might have led to my innate belief that my mother’s pav bhaji and sambar are the best in the world. I have lived in Bombay for over ten years and I have not bothered to explore the city’s many pav bhaji offerings. I did try the customary lard-laden plate at Sardar’s, and was, as is customary, absolutely disgusted. So, Mummy and Everest are my go-to for pav bhaji cravings.
Sambar, on the other hand, is a trickier conversation. With my increased interest and obsession with food, I have realised that the sambar is a tricky soup to be in. Everybody down South seems to have their own powers of attorney to claim that “they know best”. It’s quite motherly, I tell you. Every Tam-Bram friend of mine has claimed that their family cooks the most authentic pot of sambar. They crinkle their noses at the Udupi claims. Some say that temple sambars are the best bet. Others disagree on the tempering. All of them, wouldn’t have read this piece beyond the first sentence. Everest really does not cut it for South Indians. 777? Brahmin’s? Sakthi? Aachi? I have gone through all the brands. Nobody seems to agree. My local South Indian dry groceries guy (oh yes, you need a South Indian dry groceries super store for all the exotic goodness that generic supermarkets don’t stock. I prefer a very specific – and small batch – variety of banana chips that is typical to Kerala. I have a guy for that. Every South Indian dry grocer does not stock it either. South Indian dry grocers will stock a variety of spice mixes, molagapodi, cuts of coconut, varieties of tamarind, and so on, leaning slightly to whichever state the owner hails from) coaxed me into buying a box of Grahini’s sambar powder the other day. I hadn’t tried the brand out earlier – because, well, Everest, remember? – and thought that I should dip into authenticity. He also smoothly slid a packet of jaggery towards me, ever smiling, right before I was about to pay the bill.
I didn’t cook any sambar for five days. I kept staring at the box – unfamiliar, with barely any information on it, like most local products, misspelled ingredients, a one-line recipe guide – like a new roommate had been forced on me. I didn’t know how this powder tasted. I cut the packet open and sniffed. It smelled different. This had been a mistake. After five days, I finally decided to take the plunge. I will make a pot, and, well, if I don’t like it, I can always dump some chilli powder and extra tamarind juice into it and that’s that.
I hate vegetables in my sambar. Especially drumsticks. And pumpkins. I love pumpkins, otherwise, but the vegetables that go into a sambar are, quite frankly, not in the mood to mingle with each other. The pumpkin loses its sweetness and identity in the spice-heavy atmosphere, the drumstick is just unnecessary mastication, the eggplant’s fleshy umami does not complement the sour heat of the stew, and potatoes and papayas are just pointless. I understand why the sambar is loaded with vegetables – it makes for a quick filling meal with some rice and poppadums – but the vegetables lend no flavour to it.
The sambar does not need vegetables to shine. On the other hand, the baby onion variety of the sambar is absolutely stunning. It pairs brilliantly with idlis and, maybe controversially, puttu.
My mother treated the sambar like a dal. Now, Bengalis generally have a dal course during lunch. We don’t understand the concept of dal-chawal. We need dal-bhaja. Bhaja, or fritters, include almost all possible vegetables and leaves – either deep fried with a simple salt-turmeric-chilli powder rub or dunked in a thin besan-salt-turmeric-kaalo jeere (kalonji) batter. The second part of the dal course can, and often does, include a torkari – vegetable mish-mash. Each dal is assigned specific bhajas and torkaris. You don’t have aloo posto with moong dal (the correct answer is biulir dal/urad dal). Bhindi bhaja (deep fried okra) is assigned to the thin summery masoor dal with long slices of onions, that runs all over your plate and requires you to pick up the thaala and drink it off. Generally potato, eggplant, pumpkin and squash flowers pair better with heavier dals like moong, arhar, and, in the case of the sambar, toor. These dals are often served with a spicy cabbage-potato torkari, potato-cauliflower dry curry, or the unfortunately named Labra – the oily-spicy any-vegetable-you-can-find mish-mash.
So, like anything related to Bengali gastronomy, the sambar, in my house, was a “course”. Not a simple one-bowl easy meal fix. I like the idea of the sambar being a meal by itself. So, generally, a bowl of rice, hot sambar, and freshly-fried poppadums work like magic for me.
And making the sambar is zero prep and, like I recently discovered, quite an introspective experience.
To remind you, when I walked into the kitchen to finally cook with the box of Grahini sambar powder, I was stepping into unknown territory. I didn’t know what flavours I was in for. More importantly, I didn’t know if I would like them. For those of us who have graduated enough to not need recipes anymore, we always cook from memory, trying to craft a dish as a reproduction of its best version that we had been treated to. It generally is a family recipe, your mother’s cooking, or something you always order at your favourite restaurant.
But this time round, I had no memory. I poured the pre-soaked dal, onions, and tomatoes into the pot and waited for it to boil. I abhor CCDS – chopping, cutting, dicing, slicing – and the sambar, therefore, makes me quite a happy man. Quickly chop-chop-chop a couple of onions and tomatoes – size and shape be damned – and toss them right into the pot. I like to stir while it boils. There is something soothing, something relaxing, something everything-will-be-alright-I’ve-got-this about stirring a boiling pot. I watched the pot turn pink with the tomatoes. I stirred. The dal slowly softened, adding its dull yellow to the stew. I saw the onions lose their colour. It felt nice. I opened Spotify on my phone and searched for an MS Subbulaxmi playlist. Hit play.
The dal softened further. Two tablespoons of thick tamarind juice. Two for now. I know I will need more. I always need more. The tamarind that I locally get in Bombay isn’t sour enough. Isn’t dark enough. The flavour of the juice – after minutes of soaking and squishing with hand – feels listless and bored. If a yawn could be tasted, it would be the tamarinds of Bombay. Then, I pulled out a fresh tablespoon and dunked two heapfuls of the new, unknown, scarily dull red sambar powder into the pot. I hacked off two shards from the block of jaggery and threw it in. Some salt. A pinch or two of asafoetida. And then I turned the heat down a notch and stirred. The pot turned dried-blood red. This was a different colour, a different mood. MS piously sang Vathapi Ganapathim in Raag Hamsadhwani. The heady fragrance of incense wafted in through the window. My neighbour, probably. All of this was different from my mother’s kitchen back in Calcutta. Generally it would be Suchitra or Konika singing some Tagore song on the music system. My mother would trot into my room, a spoon held precariously in one hand, the other palm cupping under it. She would ask me to taste. “Noon-mishti theek aachey, dyakh toh?” Check for salt and sweet. Is it sour enough? Is it too hot? Baba doesn’t prefer it too spicy.
I know that taste really well, dammit. I have been checking its salt and sweet since I was a kid. But this cauldron of hot red, bubbling in front of me, felt like a Frankenstein experiment. MS had moved on to a Vishnu Stotram. The incense had funnily lingered, stuck to the walls of my kitchen. A cool breeze sauntered in through the window. I looked outside, stirring. I heard Netflix shows, a Hindi soap, a movie track, a pressure cooker whistled thrice in fast succession, someone crying, someone laughing, something dropped into hit oil, and the two Bihari security guards on the ground floor, having a heated discussion about the current government, their words muffled by their masks. I feel like my mother would have felt, stirring her pot of sambar that is familiar to me, looking out of her kitchen window. Stirring makes the mind wander. Stirring makes the mind calm down. Like stirring the rim of a singing bowl, my wrist, unconsciously, set itself into a rhythm. I saw flecks of dal dance, onions and tomatoes rise and fall, white froth swirling on the surface of the sambar, and I exhaled. Unknown territories generally make for exciting adventures.
There is so much we don’t know about the future. What will happen to me? Where will I be? Will my dreams come true? If they don’t, will I have new dreams? Will I have my loved ones around me forever? Will I suffer when I lose them? Will I see places I have never seen before? Will I taste new flavours, bite into wonderful experiences?
Like the unknown pot of sambar in front of me, I don’t have answers to any of those questions. But the magic, joy, and optimism is to keep stirring constantly. And with that, I scooped up a spoonful of the sambar, blew on it to cool it down a tad, and tasted it.
Like my mother used to make me, I had to fix the noon-mishti a bit. And a few more spoons of tamarind juice. But this sambar, a new memory, tasted wonderful. I swiftly prepped the tempering, an activity I love – frying whole dried red chillies, mustard and fenugreek seeds, asafoetida, and the ever-dependable curry leaves in a big dollop of ghee, filling the kitchen with a smoky-hot aroma, the quintessential desi sound of seeds spluttering and jumping in hot fat – and dumped it on the fresh sambar. That satisfying sizzle of heat, fragrance, spice, and culinary tradition is always poetic. I stirred the tempering into the sambar, watching everything mingle, the tempered spices familiarizing themselves. After I turn off the heat and cover the pot, they will comfortably settle in and ooze their essences.
The rice waits in a black ceramic dinner bowl. I fry wafer-thin poppadums. MS sings in the background. Dinner and a celebration of the unknown, shall be served shortly.