If you’re from south India, you’ve probably been brought up on a healthy dose of rasam in everyday cuisine. Rasam is the ultimate comfort food for many. That something that mom makes when you’ve been away on a long trip or you need when you’re sick. Taking on chicken soup as the quintessential comfort food isn’t easy. But rasam is totally up to the task!
A piping hot, tangy concoction chock full of pepper and other spices, rasam delivers in awakening your taste buds while keeping things light.
A staple of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka mostly, rasam has oozed into the neighbouring states, too.
Saaru in Kannada, rasam in TN/Kerala and chaaru in Andhra Pradesh/Telangana, every state has made the dish its own by adding their flavours to it.
With the consistency of thin soup sans corn flour and similar to the north Indian “shorba”, the ingredients that go into making rasam vary across cultures and states too. It can be made with or without a dal base (the addition of dal makes it more wholesome and leaves behind the thicker mixture called mandi).
Other ingredients include a rasam powder, either made from freshly dry roasted ingredients or for a shortcut method, substituted with sambar powder. The tangy element also varies widely from tamarind to lime to tomato. A tadka of curry leaves, asafoetida and mustard seeds in ghee and topped off with coriander make the basic rasam.
But rasam is more than a dish. It’s an emotion.
Says Radhika Raman from Trichy, “One of my most fond childhood memories was my mom making rasam. I can still smell the wafting aroma of ghee, the smell of the curry leaves and most of all the dollop of ghee on rice as she mixed it up into a porridge-like consistency and fed me by hand.”
Sarika Madhavan who’s married to a Kannadiga laughs, “Rasam is one of the passionate wars we have at home. It’s always a comparison of my saathumadhu vs his tomato saaru. Of course, neither of us has relented that one is better than the other but it’s always fun to have variety in the house.”
Interestingly, mulligatawny soup – so popular abroad – is simply a variation of the basic pepper rasam with certain other embellishments.
There are over 220 varieties of rasam, each with distinctive ingredients and flavours.
There’s the Ulava Charu, a rasam made with horsegram, and arguably the most popular variety from Andhra Pradesh (from the Guntur and the Krishna districts). It’s quite similar to the kollu rasam, a millet-based rasam that’s hugely popular in Karnataka and some parts of Tamil Nadu.
Then there’s the world-famous Mysore Rasam, a coconut-thickened concoction. Kerala loves its tomato rasam and it is notably a part of their Onam feast or sadya.
Indeed, rasam is a staple on wedding menus and cooks nowadays are experimenting more than ever. From the ultra-conventional tomato/lime rasam or ginger rasam to the more exotic, sweet and sour pineapple rasam, the list is never ending.
Here are some classic recipes from the different states.
Veppampoo (neem flower) rasam – Tamil Nadu
Hailed for its medicinal properties, neem is celebrated all over the country. This neem flower is known to deworm the intestine and improve the immune system. It is known to have cooling and blood purification properties.
You need: 1.5 cups of extracted tamarind water, 2 neem flowers roasted in ghee, 4 dried red chillies, a pinch of asafoetida and mustard, 1 tsp of toor dal, a sprig of curry leaves, ½ tsp of jaggery, salt-ghee-mustard seeds – to taste, coriander leaves to garnish.
Method: Throw in the tamarind water, toor dal, turmeric, asafoetida salt and curry leaves into a saucepan. Boil on low till the raw smell goes. Top up with 2 cups of water, add the jaggery and boil till frothy. Turn off the gas.
In a separate vessel, fry the red chillies, splutter the mustard seeds and add curry leaves to create a tadka. Top off the rasam with this tadka and fresh coriander leaves. Serve as a starter soup or with steamed rice.
Ulavacharu (horsegram rasam) – Andhra Pradesh/ Telangana
Horsegram (ulavu or kollu) is a millet that is flat, oval and dark brown in colour with an earthy flavour and distinctive taste. It is well documented to prevent kidney stones and has many other health benefits.
Ulavacharu is a staple in Andhra Pradesh and is often served with steamed rice and topped off with a dollop of fresh cream or curd. With the heat from green chillies and the filling body of the horsegram, this is a dish that you must add to your repertoire.
You need: 1/2 cup of overnight-soaked horsegram, 1 cup of extracted tamarind water, 3 green chillies slit length-wise, 10 peeled shallots, 2 whole dried red chillies, a sprig of curry leaves, ½ tsp of cumin-mustard seeds, 1 tsp of jaggery, a pinch of turmeric and 2 tbsp of oil.
For the rasam powder: 1 tbsp of whole coriander seeds, 1 tsp of cumin, 6 cloves of garlic.
Method: Grind the ingredients listed against rasam powder together and set aside. Pressure cook the horsegram till well-done. It doesn’t turn into mush like other lentils. Strain and reserve the liquid from the cooker. Grind the horsegram with 1 cup of its own water into a paste and set aside.
In a saucepan, heat oil, splutter mustard seeds, add cumin, curry leaves, and whole red chillies. Once slightly browned, add green chillies and the shallots. Add 1 cup of strained horsegram water and bring to a boil.
Add jaggery, turmeric and finally the horsegram paste and bring to boil over 20 minutes on a slow flame. Serve with a dollop of fresh cream over steamed rice.
Mysore Rasam – Karnataka
dipi in its origin, this rasam is not the thin soupy dish that is associated by its name. Instead, it is a bold, full-bodied dish that has a complex blend of flavours from coconut to jaggery.
You need: ½ cup of cooked and mashed toor dal, 1 chopped shallot, 2 cloves of minced garlic, 1 cup of extracted tamarind water, 3 ripe tomatoes – chopped, 1 tsp ghee, a sprig of curry leaves, 2 tsps of jaggery, mustard seeds-cumin-salt – to taste and coriander leaves to garnish.
For the rasam powder: ½ tsp each of channa dal, coriander seeds -black peppercorns-fenugreek seeds, 1 tsp cumin, a pinch of asafoetida, 2 tbsp of coconut, handful of curry leaves and 6-8 dried red chillies.
Method: In a shallow pan, roast individually all of the ingredients listed against the rasam powder. Cool, grind and reserve.
In a saucepan, add ghee, splutter the mustard-cumin, add the curry leaves. Fry a bit, add the shallots and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes. Now add tomatoes, salt and cook till the raw smell of the tomatoes goes. Add the tamarind juice and the rasam powder, turn the gas down to low and bring to a slow boil till frothy.
Add the cooked dal and jaggery, give it a stir and turn off the gas. Top with coriander leaves and serve with steamed rice.
Sadya Tomato Rasam – Kerala
No sadya is complete without a rasam to relish. Tomato rasam is most popular in the region and for good reason. It’s tangy, easy to digest and packs a punch in its simplicity.
You need: 3 chopped ripe tomatoes, 1 cup of extracted tamarind juice, 1/4 tsp red chilli powder, 1 tsp coriander powder, a pinch of turmeric, salt and water as needed, 1 tsp coconut oil, a sprig of curry leaves, ½ tsp mustard seeds, 1 each of green and dried red chillies, and coriander to garnish.
For the rasam powder: 3 shallots chopped, ½ tsp peppercorns, 1 tsp cumin and 3 pods of crushed garlic.
Method: Grind the ingredients listed against rasam powder and set aside. Heat the coconut oil in a saucepan, splutter mustard, add curry leaves and the red and green chillies. Sauté briefly and add the rasam powder spice paste. Sauté till the raw smell is gone.
Now add turmeric, salt, the chopped tomatoes, red chilli powder and coriander powder. Add tamarind extract and 1 cup of water and bring to a boil. Switch off gas and transfer to a different vessel. Top with fresh coriander. Allow it to sit for 15 minutes at least to imbibe all the flavour. Serve with steamed rice.