Cuisine Sambhar

Sambar Is Not An Original South Indian Dish?
  • Sambar is a much loved dish in South India
  • But does it really belong to Tamil Nadu?
  • What are it’s links to Maharashtra? This is shocking.

The sambar is not a South Indian dish! No, this is not just a sentence to grab your attention but a theory most culinary historians and experts back with suitable evidence. It’s impossible to think that a dish that is an integral part of menus across most of Southern Indiawas actually a contribution of the Thanjavur Marathas, a community that even most people in Tamil Nadu have little knowledge of. I first heard this theory a little over a decade ago from Praveen Anand, who is currently the Executive Chef of the Crowne Plaza Chennai. It was also the first time I experienced Thanjavur Maratha cuisine at Dakshin, the South Indian signature restaurant at the hotel. To explain this theory, I will have to take you on a little historical journey.

Who are the Thanjavur Marathas?

For centuries Thanjavur was the power centre of the Cholas, one of the mightiest Indian kingdoms whose territories extended across the Bay of Bengal as far as Indonesia. As their powers waned, Thanjavur changed a few hands before Chattrapathi Shivaji’s half-brother seized it from the Nayaks in 1674. There were a series of wars but by 1798 Serfoji II took over the reins largely backed by the British. The British were now in control. Serfoji II’s three decade reign is best remembered for his contributions to art, literature and also cuisine. It’s no coincidence that this was the same time that Lucknow cuisine was evolving into what we know it as today.

India’s First Documented Cuisine

A lot of my conversation with Chef Praveen Anand revolved around Sarabhendra Pakasathram, a set of two Marathi manuscripts that are now housed at the Saraswathi Mahal library. Serfoji II was passionate about food and ensured his scribes recorded oral statements of his palace cooks in the 1820s.

Almost two hundred years later many traditional recipes in India are being lost due to our inherent dislike for documentation. The Royal Kitchen had three clearly demarcated silos – a Brahmin vegetarian kitchen, a non-vegetarian kitchen and an English kitchen (quite a few of his cooks travelled to Fort St. George in Madras to master Western cuisine). In many ways his royal kitchen was almost structured as a modern hotel kitchen with specialists for tasks like meat carving. Sarabhendra Pakasathram remains one of India’s most exhaustive culinary accounts and probably the first attempt to document the entire culinary secrets of a Royal kitchen. Pity other Indian Royals didn’t think of a similar document.

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