Where Did Sambhar Come From, & Whose Samosa Is It Anyway?

a plate of samosa and chai

As I sit down for a conversation with Mumbai-based author Sonal Ved to discuss her culinary book Whose Samosa is it Anyway? (2021), she offers an analogy that leaves me intrigued.

“Think of Indian food as a Sabyasachi lehenga,” she says. “The lehenga you see has a variety of motifs. These don’t rely on any one kind of thread. There is a whole gamut of prints, hues and inspirations that span the garment. But when you look at it as a whole, it is downright delicious.”

Linking a luxurious fashion outfit with desi khana seems like a reach at first, but when I think about it, Sonal is right.

It’s safe to say that every Indian dish is a marriage of different flavours, spices, elements, and ingredients that fit together perfectly in the final dish. These different elements come from across borders and regions to create one masterpiece that has a special place on our plates and in our hearts alike.

Growing up in a metropolitan city like Mumbai, which she says is akin to a huge dining table with something for everyone, she was inspired by a variety of foods — the melange of traditional Gujarati dishes with a tinge of modern inspiration at home, or a plethora of diverse snacks at the school canteen. Armed with the realisation that food was at the heart of life, she was fuelled by her desire to be an author.

Sonal Ved, Author: Whose Samosa is it Anyway?
Sonal Ved, Author: Whose Samosa is it Anyway?

The stories behind desi favourites

The idea to compile a book on the origins of famous Indian dishes first came to Sonal in 2018.

“I truly feel like Indian food is getting recognised at the international level,” she says, adding that the credit for this goes to influencers, authors, and chefs who are championing the cause of regional food.

However, along with tastes and textures, this author felt there was a need to speak of the sources of the dishes, and how they create a platter of taste and delectability. This is what her book aims to do.

Whose Samosa is it Anyway? is a guide for anyone who wants to go back in time and dive into the history of the dishes that dot their plate. It is an ode to a cuisine that, for years, remained on the fringes of the global culinary scene.

It would be an understatement to say that the book’s purpose is to shed light on the origins of dishes — it also provides a window on how the subcontinent has held a few dishes close to its heart for centuries. For instance, the much loved malpua has its roots in a grain pancake that the early Indians made, which went by the name ‘apupa’. Another instance tells of a dialogue between a Buddhist sage and a king who demanded a sauce made of a set of specific ingredients. The modern-day kadhi is inspired by this.

As the book spans different periods of history and not just traces food origins but also habits, it leaves you with a tingling sense of wonder at desi cuisine.

Was it easy to trace the roots of these hit items?

“‘Overwhelming’ is more like it,” says Sonal.

“I would go through multiple rounds of interviews with people, along with browsing through news articles written by experts, academic papers, history material. I would then tally all the information to see what matched,” she adds.

Chaat, sambhar, samosa, what will you have?

Her quest ended in October 2021, when the book hit shelves and Indians all over gasped at the thought of the existence of so many cultural nuances behind the dishes.

Take, for instance, chaat, a dish that reflects the pulse of the nation.

Take a stroll down Mumbai’s lanes at 7 pm and the sight will baffle you. All-over, office goers have finished a long tiring day of excel sheets and are now waiting in line impatiently for their pani puri rounds.

For this unpretentious snack, we have Emperor Shah Jahan to thank. As Sonal’s book tells it, “The story goes that once when Emperor Shah Jahan fell ill, a royal hakim advised him to eat food loaded with spices to strengthen his immunity. The palace khansama came up with chaat, a dish that was light on the stomach but tasty at the same time.”

While office goers are gorging on their chaat and will rue this binge session later, at a restaurant nearby, their health-conscious counterparts are waiting for their dosa orders to be delivered.

Unlike the former, they do not need to wait long.

For anyone who has been to an Udupi restaurant in this country, there is one emotion that encapsulates the place — speed.

The waiter lists the dishes without taking so much as a breath, and you are barely done with one dish as the other is delivered. Thankfully, if you are lost in the maze of options, you can always rely on the humble sambhar.

But did you know this dish was discovered out of pure serendipity?

“It is believed that sambhar came into being only when the Marathas began ruling in southern Indian, and was named after Sambhaji, Shivaji’s eldest son. Apparently, Sambhaji was an ardent cook and was fond of a Marathi dish called aamti, which is a lentil-based stew soured with hints of kokum. The story goes that one day, the regular stash of kokum did not reach the Tanjore palace’s kitchen on time. Instead of telling Sambhaji that aamti could not be made, the sous chef improvised by adding a dash of tamarind pulp, something the locals had been using for years for its tartness. The dish became such a hit in the court kitchen that it was named sambhar after Sambhaji, and from Tanjore it spread to other parts of south India,” reads an excerpt from the book.

For those who are still on the quest to find answers as to who came up with the idea of the samosa, it is said that early versions were much more elaborate than the ones we see today.

During her research Sonal learnt about the cookbook Ni’matnama, which was written in Naskh, a cursive Arabic script. It bore mentions of how fried flour pasties resembling the current-day samosas were stuffed with a variety of meats, like beef and venison. Nasir Shah, the ruler of the Malwa Sultanate, had his own version, with an elaborate preparation of minced meat mashed with fennel, cumin, salt, cloves, coriander seeds, musk, rose water, ginger root and onions, folded into a triangular parcel, skewered and fried in sweet-tasting ghee.

Mentions of the samosa have also been found in the cookbooks of Asian, Islamic and Iranian lineage, called ‘the sanbusa.’ The name changed through the centuries, as did the recipe.

Some food for thought

As I marvel at the stories behind these favourite desi dishes, I ask Sonal about her future plans and whether there will be another book in the pipeline. She coyly says “Yes,” only divulging that it will centre around vegan cuisine.

Until then, we have these legends of dishes to go by.

So, the next time you order a plate of hot samosas, or have yourself some malpuas with rabdi, or even the simple kanjhee, it would do well to remember that the dish set in front of you is the product of a story as old as time itself.

For those who wish to try some unique recipes centred around these dishes, here are a few.

Mawa samosa by Chef Sanjeev Kapoor

Ingredients

  • Mawa / khoya: 1 1/2 cups
  • Refined flour (maida): 2 cups
  • Salt: A pinch
  • Baking soda: 1 teaspoon
  • Powdered sugar: 1/2 cup
  • Pistachios chopped: 10-12
  • Almonds chopped: 8-10
  • Cashewnuts chopped: 8-10
  • Saffron strands: A few
  • Ghee for brushing
  • Sugar: 1/2 cup

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degree celsius.
  2. Combine refined flour, salt and baking soda in a bowl, add sufficient water and knead into a semi hard dough. Set aside.
  3. To make the filling, combine mawa/khoya and powdered sugar in another bowl. Add pistachios, almonds and cashew nuts, as well as some saffron strands, and mix well. Divide the filling into 16 portions.
  4. Divide the dough into 16 equal portions and roll into balls. Roll into oval shape. Cut into half horizontally and dampen the edges with water. Shape each half into a cone and stuff it with one portion of the stuffing. Press to seal the edges.
  5. Place samosas on a baking tray, keep the tray in the preheated oven and bake for ten to fifteen minutes.
  6. To make glaze, heat sugar in a non-stick pan with a little water. Add some saffron strands and mix well. Remove from heat when it is thick.
  7. Glaze the baked samosas with the thick sugar syrup and serve hot.

Thanjavur sambhar

Ingredients

  • Toor dal: 1 cup
  • Tomato: 2
  • Shallots: 15
  • Salt: To taste
  • Turmeric Powder: 1/2 tsp
  • Tamarind: 100 gm
  • Radish: 2
  • Curry leaves: a bunch
  • Coriander leaves: 3 tablespoons ( chopped)
  • Garlic: 5 cloves
  • Green chilli: 1
  • Asafoetida: A pinch
  • Water: As required
  • Oil: 1 tbsp

To make sambar powder:

  • Red chillies: 3
  • Coriander seeds: 1 tsp
  • Urad dal: 1 tsp
  • Channa dal: 1 tsp
  • Fenugreek seeds: 1/4 tsp
  • Mustard seeds: 1/4 tsp
  • Cumin seeds: 1/4 tsp
  • Fennel: 1/4 tsp
  • Grated Coconut: 1/2 tsp

Method

  1. In a pressure cooker, add toor dal, turmeric, asafoetida, green chilli, garlic, and water. Cook till three whistles.
    Cut onions, tomatoes and radish in medium size pieces.
  2. Soak tamarind in warm water for 15 minutes.
  3. Make sambar powder — In a pan add a spoonful of oil and all the ingredients listed for sambar powder. fry till light golden. Take it out on a plate and let it cool and then grind to a fine powder.
  4. Heat another pan and add oil. When oil heats up add mustard seeds, cumin seeds, curry leaves. Once the spices splutter, add onion and saute till it turns golden. Then add tomatoes and radish. Add some water and bring it to a boil. Let it boil for 10 minutes and then add tamarind pulp. Let it again boil for 5 minutes. Add the cooked dal to this masala.
  5. Incorporate the dal and masala well, and then add three tablespoons of homemade sambar powder and salt. Let the sambar boil for 5 more minutes.
  6. Switch off the flame and spoon the sambar in the serving dish. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve with steamed rice.

Edited by Divya Sethu

Author: Aaron Ryan