Rasam: Spicy, Tangy, Ubiquitous and Heart-Warming

rasam
Tomato Rasam

In December last year, award-winning chef, Arun Rajadurai from Princeton, NJ was in the news when he decided to supply an extremely flavourful broth as a complimentary dish along with the food for Covid 19 patients to three hospitals. Touted as an “immunity booster”, this magical potion which instantly went viral, was essentially Rasam prepared with an extra dash of ginger, garlic and turmeric. This recipe quickly made its way into the menu of Anjappar Princeton where Arun worked as well as the restaurant’s branches in New York, New Jersey and Canada. With 500-600 portions selling out like hot cakes every day, America had woken up to the “rasam magic!”

Quintessentially South Indian

A staple in Southern India, especially in the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Telangana, rasam is also known as ‘saar’, ‘saaru’ and ‘chaaru’. For the uninitiated, it is piquant broth made from lentils, tomato, tamarind and a medley of spices.  Often had with rice as the first course of a typical South Indian meal, Rasam comes from the word ‘Rasa’ which in Sanskrit means extract. It is believed to have been first prepared in Madurai in the 16th century when the region was ruled by the Saurashtra kings.  

Known for its therapeutic properties, rasam is replete with ingredients including cumin, pepper, red chilies, coriander, curry leaves and garlic that are known for their medicinal properties.  While lentils are rich in protein, tamarind aids in digestion. The whole spices that are added to the rasam powder are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties.  Tomatoes are rich in vitamin C, potassium and lycopene which offer a number of benefits.  Loaded with health benefits, rasam is now-a-days consumed as a nutritious and an invigorating soup too.  

Often referred to as the king of soups, few foods are more comforting than mixing hot rasam with rice topped with a spoonful of ghee. A panacea for cold, cough and even fever, there is nothing that a hot cup of it cannot fix. It has an intrinsic quality that helps you overcome ‘dull days’ and ‘food blues’!  A treat for the senses, it is not an understatement to say that rasam is much more than just a dish, it is an emotion.

Varieties galore

Given its popularity, rasam is prepared in different ways.  While the conventional version is made using a base of cooked pigeon peas (Toor dal), tomatoes, tamarind extract and homemade rasam powder, the texture, thickness and flavours vary from state to state.  In fact, the rasam recipe in every house is different and each one has their own nuances.  Whether, it is the rasam powder or the method of adding tomato or even tempering, each step adds a unique dimension.

Apart from this, rasam is also made from a plethora of ingredients including horse gram, lemons, goose berries, pineapples, betel leaf and even mango.  The flavours are distinct and each one of them offers its own distinctive benefits.  In fact, ‘Rasam Digest’ an upcoming book by Usha Prabhakaran chronicles a whopping 1000 varieties of rasam recipes.

rasam
Rasam prepared during religious gatherings

Rasam Recipe

A simple and easy rasam recipe which is traditionally at home every day is the ubiquitous tomato rasam.  Here is a look at this quick rasam recipe which uses home-made rasam powder.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups pigeon peas or toor dal boiled soft mixed
  • 1 large tomato finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp thick tamarind juice
  • 1 tbsp rasam powder
  • 2 tsp jaggery powder
  • 1 sprig curry leaves
  • 1 tbsp chopped coriander or cilantro
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • ¼ tsp Asafoetida
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp ghee
  • Salt to taste

Method:

  • In a vessel take boiled pigeon peas aka toor dal and add a cup of water and mash well.
  • Heat on low flame and add chopped tomatoes and turmeric.  
  • Then add tamarind extract, jaggery powder and rasam powder and salt.
  • Allow to boil for 5-10 minutes till all the ingredients blend well.
  • Just before switching off the flame, add coriander and curry leaves.
  • Heat ghee in a small pan for tempering and add mustard seeds. Once it splutters, add cumin seeds and asafoetida and then pour over rasam.
  • Serve with hot rice or enjoy as a soup.

Notes:

  • Adjust tamarind, jaggery, salt and rasam powder as per your taste.
  • The pigeon peas must be cooked soft; you can mash it to ensure it has a paste like consistency.
  • You can pressure cook the tomatoes with the pigeon peas in case you do not want to add chopped tomatoes.
  • You can use store bought rasam powder as well.

But if you want to make it at home, here is a quick rasam powder recipe which makes the best rasam. Here are the ingredients and method:

  • 3 tsp coconut oil
  • 1 cup coriander seeds
  • 1/2 cup cumin seeds
  • 3 tbsp fenugreek seeds
  • 1 cup Byadgi red chili
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp hing / asafoetida
  • In a thick bottomed vessel heat 1 tsp of coconut oil and fry coriander seeds till aromatic and set aside
  • Add 1 more tsp of coconut oil and fry cumin and fenugreek seeds till aromatic; set aside.
  • Add the remaining coconut oil and add Byadgi red chilies and fry till they are puffed up and aromatic.
  • Allow all the above to cool.
  • Transfer to a blender, add turmeric and asafoetida and blend to a fine powder
  • You can store this in an air tight container for a couple of months.

All images courtesy of Rashmi Gopal Rao

This article is part of a series on SEEMA surrounding the world of Rasam, keep checking back each week for more! For more food-related series by this author, be sure to check out Immunity Boosters: Bewitched by Broccoli!