No other Indian dish can claim to have medicinal value in each of its ingredients. That honour belongs to the humble rasam (meaning: essence). No wonder, then, that rasam has emerged as the most popular dish during COVID-19 lockdown.
“Apart from being the simplest dish, one can prepare rasam with minimal ingredients, and it can be had as soup or mixed with rice and eaten. But preparing rasam requires knowledge, expertise and experience,” says 64-year-old Usha Prabhakaran, author of the soon-to-be-launched Rasam Digest, a book with 1,000 different rasam recipes.
A lawyer by profession, Usha shot to fame in 1998, when her Pickle Digest, a book with 1,000 pickle recipes, was published. “Actually, I collected almost 3000 recipes but I had to pick 1000 [for the book],” says Usha, who got the ‘Pickle Queen’ moniker soon after. “Over time, I have developed the knack of extracting recipes from anyone and everyone I come across,” adds Usha, who credits her mother-in-law, Chandra Lakshmi, for lighting her passion for cooking, who at the age of 83 still actively engages herself in cooking as well as shopping for ingredients. The nuances I learnt from her but the numerous tips and tricks I gathered over a period of time, Usha says.
The book has sections like Modest Pleasures (rasam from plant stems, leaves and rind-based), Hard to Resist Residual Wonder (rasam made with the residue of chutney or thogayal) and Quick Serves (instant rasam), Dynamic Diet, Heritage Sustenance, Physician at your Door, Dazzling Superstars, among others.
Achieving critical mass
For a perfect rasam, balancing the tamarind (sourness), adding spices and seasoning, which helps lock the flavour in, is critical. “Sourness can be derived from tamarind, tomato, sour buttermilk or just dal water,” says Usha, adding that rasam fits everyone’s budget, can be prepared with minimal ingredients, or if one or two of the basic ingredients are not available. Basic ingredients can be interchanged if one is unavailable, like moong dal can be swapped for toor dal. The dish can be prepared, tasted and changed to your desired taste all through the process of cooking. Most importantly, it is a medicinal preparation that plays a significant role throughout an individual’s life from birth to old age, says Usha, adding, “Which is why I have dedicated a section in the book to age-appropriate rasams, titled Birth to Adulthood.”
Rasam can be made out of almost anything. “Have you ever tasted pea peel rasam, or betel leaf rasam? How about jamoon rasam? Did you know that we can make rasam using jackfruit seed, watermelon rind, kodukkapuli, hibiscus flower and bamboo shoot?,” she asks.
Even peels and plant stems, which are usually discarded, can be used. “When we were in Kerala, our domestic helper used to collect banana peels and take it home. Out of curiosity, I asked her what she would do with them, and that is how I learnt to make banana peel rasam. Similarly, keera thandu, murunga keera and agathi keera lend themselves well for the dish. Rasam made with stems of mint, coriander and curry leaves will taste heavenly,” says Usha.
Kicking up flavours
Ingredients to garnish ought to be added to ghee in a particular order. “Once the ladle is hot with oil, add the urad. When it turns light brown and gives out aroma, add the mustard. As it starts to splutter, add red chillies, fenugreek seeds, cumin and curry leaves (in that order) and then pour it over the rasam. Thaalippu or garnish is the crown, so it has to be perfect,” she says. “If it gets burnt, just discard it and redo. In some families, they sprinkle a little water after garnishing and this is to lock the flavour.”
- Usha’s rasam podi recipe:
- 200 gms each of Tanjore (gundu), Salem (neetu) and Bedige chillies
- 600 gms coriander seeds
- 200 gms each of pepper, jeera and fenugreek
- 1/4 of LG asafoetida bar
- 6 to 10 turmeric sticks
- 10 sprigs of sun-dried curry leaves
- 2 large fistfuls toor dal
- 1 fistful moong dal (optional)
- 1 fistful urad dal
- 1 fistful channa dal
- Sun-dry the ingredients and grind them to medium coarse in a mill.
“While assembling the dish, crushing curry leaves, tomato and coriander leaves together with crystal salt and tamarind water brings out the best flavour. A slit green chilli and a blob of jaggery enhance the taste,” she adds. Usha also notes that rasam is best made using an eeya chombu (a vessel made out of tin-aluminium alloy that has a broad base and narrow neck), clay pot or soapstone pot.
The eeya chombu is designed in such a manner that the aroma and flavour rotate within the vessel when it is mixed with a ladle,” she says, adding a word of caution, “Never use cast iron to make rasam.” Another important trick is assembling the rasam. You got to crush curry leaves, tomato and coriander leaves with crystal salt along with tamarind water to get that magical taste and flavour, and this comes with practice.
Usha has listed wide range of rasam podi recipes in her book. Now coming to rasam podi, Usha insists that sun drying all the ingredients will result in aromatic rasam. The rule can be relaxed and ingredients roasted in a pan only during rainy days. Depending on usage, rasam podi can be stored for upto six months. “Another reason why some never get it right is they might let the preparation boil over and this might ruin the flavour. When it is about to boil, switch off, garnish and close immediately. Use only ghee for garnishing as ghee acts as the vehicle for absorbing the goodness of the spices used. And the rasam connoisseur that she is, she insists she has prepared each of the 1,000 rasams in her book at least five times.
“The book is targeted at Indian and international audiences, and has a detailed description of all 350 ingredients with a photograph, its medicinal value, taste and usage. I have also provided tips on how to buy and store these ingredients.”
A rasam connoisseur would always go for Adi rasam or the mandi, which is nothing but what settles at the bottom of the vessel. Once you understand the value of mandi, you will never miss it. The best way to serve rasam is to give it a good mix with a ladle and then serve it.
The herbal concoction predominantly made in Southern states is called Rasam in Tamil Nadu. Chaaru in Andhra and Saaru in Konkan and Karnataka, the preparation usually an everyday affair is an essential part of the South Indian cusine.
Gita Rajamani, a food blogger whose You Tube channel, Agrahara Recipes, documents tradtional vegetarian recipes handed over from generations says that each of the spices has healing properties and is essentially facts as an immunity booster. Rasam preparation in households depends on the season, for example during the rainy season Jeera Milagu Rasam and Milagu rasam is the staple.
During the Covid 19 crisis, the septuagenarian recommends Kandanthippili and Sadakuppai rasam, which is a remedy for fever, cold and cough. As it is easily digestible, rasam is suitable for people of all age groups, and for diabetic population, she recommends Goddu rasam or the mild rasam with minimal ingredients and buttermilk rasam.
Nutritious Konkani Saaru
Food blogger Divya Kudua, who specialises in Kerala and Konkani cuisine, says that in Kerala rasam never takes the centrestage, but is always a mild concoction made using jeera and pepper, usually served as an after meal digestive drink. In Konkani cuisine Saaru is prepared using the tamarind, dal and coconut.
“Usually on Fridays we make Channa water rasam, which is more like a soup and not necessarily mixed with rice and eaten. Saaru as we call it, is a nutritious dish suitable for all age groups,” says Divya.
Raw, no fuel
In Andhra and Telangana region, there are numerous variations of Chaaru (rasam). Depending on the region, the ingredients that goes into this spiced up broth varies, says Chef Thimma Reddy, The Park, Hyderabad.. He observes that the usage of garlic is high in these states, and more red chillies are used in the place of pepper corns. Considered a poor man’s food, the dish’s highlight is the garnishing, he says.
His favorite is the Pacchi Pulusu, which does not require cooking and is raw. Pacchi pulusu can be prepared in a jiffy, and the most important aspect is the mixing of all the ingredients in the tamarind water with one’s hands
100 grams Tamarind
25 grams Green chilli
00 grams Onion
10 grams Curry leaves
10 grams Coriander leaves
10 grams Jaggery
25 ml Oil
10 grams Cumin seeds
10 grams Dry red chilli
Salt to taste
500 ml Water
Method: Soak tamarind for 30 minutes in water, squeeze and extract the pulp. Slit the green chilli, roast on direct flame until it darkens and skin it off. Roughly crush all the ingredients, roasted chilli, onion, coriander using mortar and pestle. In a bowl, add water, tamarind pulp, jaggery, crushed ingredients and salt to taste. Tempering: Heat the oil, add cumin seeds, dry red chilli and curry leaves, pour the tempering over the raw tamarind rasam and mix well.
Recipe by Chef Thimma Reddy, The Park, Hyderabad