At about 16 years of age I moved to a large city in Southern India from a very small town of Eastern India. It was a whole different world. Everything from the culture, to language, to food was different. I was being introduced to new tastes, flavors & a beautiful culture of generosity around food.
One of my first travels without family was a 3-day college trip. We travelled in a ramshackle bus with barely enough seats for everyone, traveling through the night and visiting various spots during the day. It was a unique experience where a cook travelled with us along with a stove, utensils & all cooking ingredients. At meal times we would find a clean spot around the route & he would cook right there.
One of the spots we visited during this trip was an ancient Hindu temple. Located in a beautiful hilly region, this temple is dedicated to a Hindu goddess, ‘Annapoorneshwari – one who fulfills all food needs’. Free meals are provided to all the visitors. This is common in many other temples of the region as I was to discover from there on.
Our group decided to have lunch at the temple. We stood in a huge queue, moving at an impressive speed & after a bit of wait; we were let into a large dining hall. We were seated on floor as is the old Indian dining tradition & a banana leaf was laid out for each one of us. Then started a trail of people carrying food in large containers, the rice being carted out in a wheelbarrow! We were being served with a beautiful array of traditional south Indian food, rice accompanied with sambar, rasam, vegetable curry, pickle, chutney, kosambari, appalam, buttermilk, payasam & a banana to finish it off. Amazing aromas, flavors & tastes assailed my senses, creating one of the most wonderful & memorable food experiences. That was the beginning of my love affair with all aspects of food.
In a dilemma as to which of these recipes to feature, I chose ‘sambar’, simply because it seemed to be the central dish that brought the whole meal together.