General / Science

Sambar Science


I have been cooking sambar and rasam (type of lentil soups) all my adult life and in my opinion not only is it a comfort food but also a wholesome nutritious meal. It is one of the most complex dishes as it has a multidimensional depth of taste. This is a result of ingredients which come from different sources such as seeds, fruits, dry spices and oil. Even though sambar was accidentally created by a Maratha ruler, it has firmly taken residence in many of south Indian homes.  After all these years, finally my curiosity was tweaked enough to find out more about the science behind the dish I eat almost everyday. The main ingredients of sambar are lentils, tomatoes, tamarind pulp, vegetables and seasoning made of asafoetida, mustard seeds and curry leaves. 

The most commonly used lentil is pigeon peas which was first domesticated on Indian subcontinent about 3500 years ago. This is a shrub which has tap roots thus helping it thrive in tropical and subtropical regions. This is a major source of protein for the majority of vegetarians in India. This is one of the first legumes of such a genome sequence that was completed. A total of 1213 genes which provide resistance to disease or act as defense genes have been identified by this work. The proteins expressed by such genes render this as a hardy plant and made it a success story especially in dry and hot regions such as Africa, Latin America and Asia where it is a main source of protein. The name pigeon peas originated in Barbados as this lentil used to be fed to pigeons. The leaves of this plant are also edible, however it is not used in sambar preparation.  They are known for their medicinal properties and used for treatment of coughs, bronchitis, diarrhea. 

The next most important ingredient in sambar is tomato which is a fruit originally from South America. This is a fruit which is most widely used globally and is termed as red gold. This is a great source of Vitamin C, potassium, Vitamin B9 and Vitamin K. Even though tomatoes come in a variety of colors, it is the red ones which are mostly used for sambar and rasam. Apart from giving an attractive red color, tomatoes also infuse umami taste to dishes. There are roughly 20,000 varieties of tomatoes of which only a handful seem to be popular. 

Tamarind pulp is one of the influential ingredients which defines sambar and rasam in my opinion. The Tamarind tree is native to Africa, but is also seen grown in tropical and subtropical countries. This imparts a tangy flavor to the dish which makes sambar and rasam really addictive. Other than a wide array of vitamins, tamarind is also known to contain antioxidants. It is not just humans who find this fruit tasty, warthogs and lemurs have this as a part of their diet. Along with the above ingredients, any combination of vegetables can be used to create a wholesome meal. Apart from being eaten, the pulp is also used as a metal polish.




Additionally, dry spices such as turmeric, sambar/rasam powder are also added and no dish is complete without tempering which is done at the end. This is a technique where ingredients such as asafoetida, mustard seeds, dry chillies and curry leaves are roasted in  hot oil and added to the dish. This technique is mainly used in countries in and around India. The hot oil helps these dry spices to release their essential oils to a maximum extent so that these flavors are in the forefront of taste layers that is experienced. So, next time when you are taking a sip of sambar, remember it is not only the taste and the love of your mother that you are enjoying, it is also the rich history and science of the ingredients which makes this such a wonderful dish.

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