Whoever has not heard of 'Sambar', the famous South Indian food accompaniment consumed with rice and other main dishes like Idli, Vada, Dosa, Poori and Chapathi. Till 5 decades ago this preparation was practically unknown to people in the North but the cosmopolitan transformation taking place over the past few years has made the description of people in terms of South, North, East or West lose its meaning and Sambar has become a symbol of national integration just like the 'Northern' Chapathi which has crept into the regular diets of South Indians. Why pick on Sambar and what is so special about it? There are strong reasons to pay tribute to this humble product with manifold contributions to the welfare of a significant segment of Indian population for centuries.
There was a time not too distant in the past that a particular community populating in Mylapore in Chennai, Tanjavur in Tamilnadu and Palghat in Kerala was identified closely with Sambar, Curd and freshly brewed coffee. Coincidentally this community also produced a large number of brilliant intellectuals that served well the cause of the Nation during colonial days as well as post-independent era. In Kerala school children often used to mock at those hailing from this community as 'Sambar Kudiyans', of course in a lighter vein, literally implying that they have the habit of drinking sambar every day! But who would have thought that this humble preparation would spread like a wild fire in the years to come? To day there are a number of variants of sambar prepared by different communities in different regions, though basically the ingredients are tur dal and spices like coriander, red chilli, fenugreek and cumin. There are Madras Sambar, Mysore Sambar, Udipi Sambar etc each one having its own characteristic flavor and taste using varying mix of ingredients with minor changes in the cooking mode.
The remarkable feature of sambar is that it is basically a gravy and almost all vegetables can be used singly or in combinations. Thus sambar preparations are made commonly with onion, potato, pumpkin, ash gourd, okra, colacasia root, spinach, brinjal, bitter gourd, beans, ridge gourd, bottle gourd, drumstick, cauli flower, cabbage, radish, knol kol, etc singly or in different combinations. While some use ground paste of grated coconut and spices and condiments for getting a better body and taste, others make sambar based on only tur dal and/or other dals. Sambar is also made without coconut or dals when a vegetable like brinjal, colacasia stems, okra, red spinach or beetroot is the choice and green chilli, asafoetida, tamarind and coriander leaves provide the typical flavor to these preparations. Nutritionally sambar provides vital proteins from the dal and/or coconut component with plenty of fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins and trace minerals coming from different vegetables and spices. A typical 200 gm serving of Sambar contains about 8-10 gm of proteins and depending on the vegetables used provide about 2-3 gm dietary fiber, 2-3 gm of minerals and other useful nutrients. Inclusion of ingredients like black pepper, turmeric, asafoetida, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, curry leaves, coriander leaves confers special advantages from the health perspectives and make sambar a truly versatile side preparation that can be termed the life-sustaining dietary component for many an Indian.
During nineteen fifties food scientists used to deride diets based on rice in southern parts of the country as 'poor' because polished rice can provide only starch as the major source of nutrient yielding the so called empty calories. But looking back one may not agree with such a conclusion because of the consumption of a variety of accompaniments, the leading one being sambar. Others like 'Kootu' in Tamilnadu, 'Majjike Huli' in Karnataka and 'Avial' in Kerala are similar accompaniments making the diet healthier than what it was thought to be. Development of macaroni type synthetic rice based on tapioca in fifties by CFTRI was aimed at enriching this carbohydrate rich food with proteins from vegetable sources like peanuts and coincidentally to overcome the shortage of rice during fifties, though the project was a disaster, seen from any angle due to its poor acceptability at the consumer end. The current efforts to evolve high protein rice varieties are still in a nascent stage but acceptability by the consumer is going to be a critical factor that will decide the fate of such new varieties.
Food processing industry, realizing the potential for business, came out with many sambar products which include spice mixes, spice+dal mixes, RTE sambar in retort pouches etc which are available in the market shelves commanding considerable demand. RTE sambar rice and its Bisibele bhath version in retort pouches provide great convenience and comforts to the consumers, especially for the immigrant populations out side India. A few years ago CFTRI, Mysore did develop a dehydration technology for ready made sambar which only needed water to be added for reconstitution before consumption. Unfortunately the product did not click in the market for unknown reasons. What is missing in the Indian scenario is the frozen version of sambar probably due to limited cold chain infrastructure existing in the country that comes in the way of country-wide distribution. Possibility of a POSI version needs to be explored so that with a few basic and stable ingredients, one can assemble a sambar variant meeting the flavor, taste and nutrition demands of individual consumer at the point of sale.