Sambar, also spelt sambhar, is a lentil-based vegetable Stew or chowder based on a broth made with tamarind. It is popular in South Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil cuisines.
One of the stories is that it originated in the kitchen of Thanjavur Marathas ruler Shahuji during the 17th century from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Shahuji trying to make a dish called amti, experimented with pigeon peas instead of mung bean, and tamarind pulp for kokum and the court named it sambhar after the guest of the day, Sambhaji, second emperor of the Maratha Empire.
Other sources[?] point to origin as Karnataka where sambaru padartha in Kannada means mix of spices and condiments. There is also an alternate explanation that the origin of the name is from the old Tamil word, chaampu, meaning ground or paste, in the context of grinding coconut and spices to be dissolved in tamarind pulp. This word is also the root for the unrelated South East Asian dish sambol.
The word Sambar (old Tamil:Champaar - சாம்பார்) stems from Tamil word Champaaram (சம்பாரம்) meaning spicy condiments. Chambaram kootu (சம்பாரங்கூட்டு) and chambaram podi (சம்பாரப்பொடி) means curry powder.
A Tamil inscription of 1530 CE, evidences the use of the word champaaram, in the sense of meaning a dish of rice accompanying other rice dishes or spice ingredients with which a dish of vegetable rice is cooked:
“அமுதுபடி கறியமுது பல சம்பாரம் நெய்யமுதுள்ப்பட தளிகை ஒன்றுக்கு பணம் ஒன்றாக”
Amuthupadi ka’riyamuthu pala champaaram neyyamuthu’lppada tha’likai on’rukku pa’nam on’raak.
Meaning: “Cooked rice offerings, including curry rice (pepper rice or vegetable rice), many types of spiced rice (pala champaaram) and ghee rice, at the rate of one pa’nam (a denomination of money) per one portion.”
Ka'riyamuthu pala champaaram, as a compound phrase could also mean vegetable rice prepared with many spices.
Sambar is made either exclusively with one of these vegetables or a combination of them - okra, moringa (also known as drumstick), carrot, radish, pumpkin, white radish, potatoes, tomatoes, brinjal (eggplant) and whole or halved shallots or onions. Sambar powder is a coarse powder made of roasted lentils, dried whole red chilies, fenugreek seeds, coriander seeds and sometimes asafoetida and curry leaves with regional variations including cumin, black pepper, grated coconut, cinnamon, or other spices. The vegetables, tamarind pulp, sambar powder, turmeric, salt, and asafoetida are boiled together, until the vegetables are half-cooked. After the vegetables are half cooked, the cooked lentils (The most common lentil used is the split pigeon pea also known as Toor dal) are added and allowed to cook until the vegetables are done. A spice-scented oil is added to the cooked Sambar for extra flavor and tempering, and the dish is served garnished with fresh coriander leaves or curry leaves. The addition of spice-scented oils at the end of cooking for is a common Indian culinary technique. mustard seeds, black gram, dried red chillies and curry leaves fried in ghee or vegetable oil is one example of numerous oil flavourings used for Sambar.
Sambar is reflective of a broad and ancient tradition of lentil-based vegetable stews in southern India. In regions that grow coconuts, notably some areas of Kerala, coastal Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, Sambar is made with a paste of fresh, grated and roasted coconuts and spices, instead of sambar powder. Sambar without lentils (but with vegetables/fish/dry fish etc.) is called kuzhambu in Tamil Nadu.
Sambar is usually served with steamed rice as one of the main courses of both formal and everyday South Indian cuisine. A two-course meal of Sambar mixed with rice and eaten with some sort of vegetable side dish followed by yoghurt mixed with rice is a prime southern Indian staple. Vada sambar and idli sambar are popular for breakfast or evening snack in the south Indian states. Road side restaurants often offer free refills of sambar for iddli and vadas. Sambar is also served as a side dish for dosa.