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Written by 5:26 PM Food • 2 Comments

Idly-Sambar, a South Indian delicacy? Nah!

If you thought the humble idly-sambar has its origins in South India, think again.

Think idly-sambar, and what image pops up in your head immediately?

Yes, the logo of Nalla Madras has eight excellent, fluffy idlis, vadas, chutney, and sambhar.

Nalla Madras logo

And where would you find this heavenly breakfast?

“Go to any self-respecting place serving tiffin, I say” would be a Subramaniam’s answer.

Well, if you asked a Kapoor, the answer would be, “Go to any Madrasi hotel bhai.”

Peoples of any state South of the Vindhyas were Madrasis to my brethren living in the North of the Vindyas. We in the South would refer to those north of the Vindhyas as Hindi-kaaranga (Hindi wallahs).

I’m talking mid-70s up until late90s.

Each was the object of ridicule for the other. I can’t blame the people. Hindi films showed South Indians as comical figures with a tuft and dhoti (think actor Mehmood). Tamil films portrayed our North Indian brethren as merciless, fat, usually cast as pawn brokers, speaking pidgin Tamil.

Thanks to A R Rehman and the RRRs and PS1’s and the internet, and general increased awareness, such terms are no longer in vogue, which is fantastic. The Kapoors and the Sharmas know that Tamil Nādu is different from Karnataka, which is different from Kerala, which is different from Andhra, and so on.

Wait, what? There are two Andhras now? What’s the other one called? Oh yes, Telangana.

Rombo confusing saar.

Now going back to idly-sambhar. Supposing you had a reporter from a popular South Indian newspaper stop you on the street in a busy Chennai intersection at a traffic light and ask you.

“Sir, do you know from where did the idly and sambar originate?” You would probably look at the guy weirdly and ask if his head is screwed in the right place.

If the reporter persisted, you would probably turn on the most indignant glare and reply,

“C’mon bro, everyone knows that idly-sambar is from Chennai and is a very popular all over the South and now in the North of India too.”

Ding Ding – correct answer! This is what you would expect to hear.

Instead, the reporter would smash it right back into your forehand with a smirk.

“You are wrong, sir.”

You start to react indignantly, but suddenly you hear a lot of honking behind you, spiced up with some cuss words questioning your parentage, etc., and you suddenly realize the light has turned green and you have been holding up the traffic.

So, you speed away, shaking your head and punching the air. If you were on a motorcycle or scooter, that is.

Difficult to punch the air inside a car, especially if you are driving a car like the Maruti 800.

All this spiel to just talk about the origins of the idly and sambar? Yes, like they would say in Chennai.

“Build up saar.”


Let’s get to know the idly batter, er….better.

There are many theories of where the humble idly originated.

According to food historian KT Acharya, the chef employed by a Hindu-Buddhist king of Indonesia may have been the mastermind behind the invention of idly and was the person responsible.

Acharya mentions an Indonesian dish called kedli, which, according to him, is like an idly. The chef must have pinched this recipe, changed the ratio of the ingredients and shape, and proudly presented it to the king.

“O Mighty One, I present to you, my culinary invention, the Idly .”And the king must have awarded the chef a thousand gold coins. It might have turned into a thousand lashes if some jealous sous-chef ratted to the king that it’s just a rehash of the kedli.

Since this is not mentioned anywhere in the history books, I presume the chef neatly pocketed the thousand gold coins and must have had a wild night with his mates.

Yet another theory suggests that South India and Arabia had a long-standing trading relationship well before the arrival of the prophets; Arab traders settled in South India and made certain rice cakes that were later recognized as idlis.

Yet another theory claims that the idly is a version of the Ida. This dish came to South India in the 10th century CE when the silk-weaving community of Saurashtra settled in Tamil Nadu.

I would go with the idly from Indonesia theory. Why? Just simbly ….did I just give away my Kerala roots?

Now to dive into the origins of sambar.

His Highness Shahu Maharaj

According to one version of a legend, the souring agent called ‘Kokum,’ a tropical fruit used mainly in Western India, ran out while a king named Shahu Maharaj, who owed allegiance to Sambhaji Maharaj, son of the great Maratha warrior Shivaji Maharaj, was preparing a famous Maharashtrian dish with lentils called ‘Amti.’

The king substituted tamarind for the ‘Kokum,’ and bingo, the sambar, was born.

Why would the great king Shahu Maharaj don an apron and go to the kitchen to prepare Amti when he had thousands of vassals waiting on him hand and foot? I don’t know.

My guess is it must have gone on like this.

Sambaji Maharaj: “I feel like eating some Amti today. Ask the royal cook to prepare some Amti.”

After about ten minutes, the shivering royal cook said, “A thousand apologies, O mighty one, we are out of kokum.”

A less benevolent king might have said, “What, no kokum? All you must do is cook, and you can’t keep track of your pantry stocks?” “Off with his head.”

However, Sambaji Maharaj was a kind ruler who thought outside the box.

“Never mind, add tamarind instead,” said Sambaji Maharaj, and voila, a new dish was born.

Another legend has it that during one of Shambhaji’s visits to Thanjavur, South India, the royal kitchens created a special lentil dish they named Sambhar in his honor. For the uninitiated, Thanjavur was ruled by the Marathas, and the mighty Maratha kings visited Thanjavur off and on. The Maharaja is sure to have ended up with king-sized saddle sores at the journey’s end.

It’s a long ride on the back of a horse. Express trains take two full days to complete the journey, giving you an idea of the distance involved. Someone must have come up with a salve to get rid of a sore behind, but that’s another story for another blog.

Kottu, a dish described in Tamil literature, is often viewed as the ancestor of sambhar, and the concept of combining lentils and vegetables in a single dish is common in traditional Tamil cooking.

Interestingly, the lentils’ Tuvar Dal’ (also called ‘Toor’) and ‘Arhar,’ popular dals in Western India, form the basis of the Sambhar. Also, the Tuvar Dal is not widely known in Tamil Nadu, so using a Maharashtrian Dal in a well-known Tamil dish may seem strange.

So, QED.

Idly – from Indonesia
Sambar – from Maharashtra

So the next time you slurp your sambar and eat melt-in-your-mouth idlis, think of the Indonesians and the Maratha kings.

Doubt if you will, but I have said what I had to say.

Cited Sources

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