You could say it began with the word “sambhar”. What does sambhar, the South Indian dish, have in common with sambhar, the Asian deer? Was the animal named for the stew or vice versa? The dish is made in all four southern states, but only Tamilians call it “sambhar”. However, the animal is called “sambhar” in Hindi. Is this a case of parallel evolution of the word in two different languages? The dual meaning and almost identical pronunciation of the word led to some exasperating bilingual conversations in forest camps.
The genesis of my article titled ‘21st century idli' (17 March 2012), began much earlier than this investigation of “sambhar” etymology. About 20 years ago, an ecologist mentioned that neem may not be Indian. He had heard it from someone else and couldn't name a definite source. Astonished, I asked botanists and tree planters, and read different sources in an effort to find the tree's true homeland.
Botanical authorities Dietrich Brandis and Marius Jacobs said the dry forests of Upper Irrawaddy, Burma, may be neem's home. James Sykes Gamble speculated that it was the forests of Karnataka, or the dry inland forests of Burma. J.F. Duthie and U.N. Kanjilal thought it originated in the Shiwaliks, Uttarakhand. The east coast of India and even Africa were mentioned by others.
But Heinrich Schmutterer argued that neem displays a wide range of differences in physical features in Burma, which suggests greater genetic diversity. Therefore, that country is likely to be its motherland. Many, however, vehemently disagree and insist it is native to India. Perhaps a molecular study will reveal the original home of this tree.
Today neem is found in tropical dry deciduous, tropical dry evergreen and thorn forests. On our farm, a whole variety of fruit-eating birds like golden orioles, cuckoos, and bulbuls feast on the fruits and disperse seeds. Neem is the food plant of a few species of moths. Whether it originated in Karnataka, Uttarakhand or Burma, the species has colonized the rest of the country with considerable help from man.
While on this search, I began to probe the provenance of other trees. South Indian cooking uses a good deal of tamarind. Even though the name ‘tamar-ul-hind' means ‘date of India' in Arabic, its African ancestry is not disputed; it is an accepted fact.
Now you know sambhar was named for Sambhaji, Shivaji's son. He was a guest at the court of his cousin, Shahuji I, and was not the ruler as misreported in ‘21st century idli'. Sambhaji may have been named for Sambha, son of Krishna, or Sambhu, an epithet of Siva. The Maratha origin of sambhar is a known oral story corroborated by several Web sources (for instance, ‘The Story of Sambhar' by Padmini Natarajan) and newspapers, including The Hindu. The word doesn't seem to have been used before the 17th century.
I wondered: if sambhar is not South Indian, what about idli? Food scientist K.T. Achaya detailed the Indonesian antecedents of the fluffy steamed cake in ‘A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food'. He quoted the famous Chinese traveler Xuan Zang categorically stating that India did not have a steaming vessel in the 7th century. Achaya also suggested that Indonesians make a similar dumpling called kedli. I've hunted high and low for a recipe unsuccessfully. Surprisingly, after that elaborate treatise on idli, he doesn't shed any light on the origin of sambhar.
If “sambhar” is a derivative of Sambhaji's name, what's the connection to the deer? The root of the animal's name is the Sanskrit ‘sambara'. In Hindu mythology, Indra slew a demon of that name. Was the animal named after a villain? Or is it, like the stew, named for Sambhu, ‘lord of the universe', who is depicted holding a deer in one of his hands? I can only speculate.
As Rom ladles another scoop of sambhar into a cup, he asks mischievously, “All the history and name play is nice, but how about a sambhar sambhar?”