To an average westerner Indian food is made up of a magical substance called Curry. Anything liquid gravyish that smells great with dripping oil and vegetables and Paneer floating around is called Curry. I am a south Indian and my normal lunch is what many call it as “South Indian Food“. It is hard to term a South Indian Food as Curry based. So, I find it amusing that during my lunch at work, I microwave a box full of Sambar Rice and one of the passer by colleague would say “hmm … Curry smells great!” for yesterday’s left over Sambar.
The analogy that I can try to bring here is how Bollywood became the single known identity for Indian cinema to the outside world. Think about it, Bollywood is not the only cinema power house in India and yet people outside India only know about Bollywood. The highest paid actor in India is not even from Bollywood. A lot of Regional film industries are lost into the nomenculature of “Bollywood”, falling into an Identity crisis. (This topic needs its own post) Curry does this to other Indian food, as to what Bollywood does to other Indian Film Industries. Phew, I think I ended up advertising Bollywood a lot by adding the word “Bollywood” in every freaking Bollywood related sentence in this Bollywood related Paragraph.
Even the almighty Oprah Winfrey didn’t exactly know what Curry is. Dr. Oz had to explain the difference between a Curry powder and Curry. Now let me do the job of saving the identities of 3 popular South Indian dishes (not in any order) that have been more or less generalized as Curry or Soup.
This is perhaps the most popular liquid dish in South India. In the west, this is consumed in the name of Lentil Soup, but it is far from being a Soup. Yes it can be had as Soup but being a Soup is not Sambar’s primary purpose. Sambar is made from Lentils, Tamarind and a Mysterious powder called Sambar powder. A recipe of common form of Sambar is available at Wiki Cookbooks.
Sambar can be made in multiple flavours with different vegetables, but the base of all Sambars start from the all powerful Sambar Powder, the equivalent of Curry Powder. Sambar is usually had with rice or South Indian Tiffin dishes like Dosa, Pongal, and Idli. With vegetables like Drumstick, Okra, Onions, Carrots, Tomatoes one can make variety of sambar that would taste entirely different from each other. For this reason Sambar has to be a category of its own and no you cannot have it as a Soup.
Kozhambu is a derivative of Sambar that is cooked without the lentils. But since it’s taste is very different from Sambar, it cannot be categorized as a Sambar. Kozhambu is made with Kozhambu (or Sambar) powder with vegetables or chicken or fish or Lamb meat. All Kozhambus are made by constantly heating the mixture of powder, water and ingredients until it becomes thick.
Some popular Varieties of Kozhambu are – Vatha Kozhambu, which tastes great with rice and Papad/Vadam/Vathal. Tomato Kozhambu, a famous dish from my community (Sourashtra), is awesome when had with Dosa or Idli. Fish Kozhambu, Cooked fish in Kozhambu, if you are a non vegetarian this is an awesome dish to try, it is best had with Rice. Urad/Coconut Kozhambu, which I had for lunch recently, made from boiled Urad and Coconut pieces. The list goes on. Kozhambu is indeed it’s own category and has to be had with rice. Don’t try to take it as soup for you will have a blast the next morning, if you know what I mean. Head on over here for some Kozhambu recipes.
Rasam is another of my favourite South Indian Dish made from Pepper, Tomato and spices. If you head on over to this Wikipedia entry you can find how varied Rasam is. There are various varieties like Lentil Rasam, Tomato Rasam, Pepper Rasam, Lemon Rasam and so on, which tastes great with Rice and had with Papad or Chips
Rasam in Tamil means “Essense” and that is just what it is. It is said that in the Mythological epic of Mahabharatha, the character of Bhima is a great cook of Rasam Varieties. From this you can know, how ancient the Rasam dish is. Rasam is one dish that I can approve of as a candidate for Soup as its primary purpose. It provides great relief for head aches and cold (yes, Grandma medicine we call it) when had as Soup.
You can find some South Indian Recipes here.
To summarize, It is hard to term these dishes as curries because it doesn’t taste or is not made like the dishes that deserve to be curries viz Paneer Makhani, Malai Kofta etc. Compared to these Paneer Makhani is just a curry of one kind and there is only 1 standard way of preparing it. So there it is, Sambar, Kozhambu and Rasam are really a category of their own and has nothing to do whatsoever with the term “Curry”. They have to treated individually with their identity and not even categorized as Soup, but just be called as Sambar, Kozhambu and Rasam. Perhaps I can allow all three to be called under one name – SamKoRas or any other innovative words.
PS: These days I am extremely busy being Lazy and hence I haven’t had a chance to write a new post, but I was glad to find an ancient post from my drafts that I forgot to post. I have a few of those and I will try to post them until I can properly get back to my style of blogging.