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‘Rasam’ means essence or extract and the dish is a balanced mix of spices, tamarind and lentils, mutton or seafood stock. (Istockphoto)
‘Rasam’ means essence or extract and the dish is a balanced mix of spices, tamarind and lentils, mutton or seafood stock. (Istockphoto)

Rasam recipes hit refresh

Considered an ancient Indian dish, the flavour-packed concoction is witnessing a revival with books and videos documenting its science and recipes

A pale yellow pineapple rasam garnished with fresh green curry leaves in a matte black manchetti (Tamil for clay pot) presents a striking harmony of colours. This visual is from a video on the Twitter feed of techie, musician and food science enthusiast Krish Ashok.

Rasam, a thin soupy concoction spiked with spices and tamarind, is ubiquitous in south Indian kitchens. It is a flavour-packed blend of salt, fat, acid and heat believed to be potent enough to clear a blocked nasal passage and gentle enough to soothe an upset stomach. Its curative properties have prompted a renewed interest in it. “In Sangam literature, rasam is believed to be food and medicine; that’s why it is made every day in Tamil households," says cookbook author Usha Prabhakaran. The very first rasam documented in Sangam literature was made without chillies or tomatoes, for these ingredients were introduced into Indian cuisine by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

One of the simplest, and perhaps oldest, recipes for rasam doesn’t involve any cooking. It has just four ingredients considered indigenous to India—tamarind extract, crushed black pepper, crushed cumin and salt— says Prabhakaran, who has been working on her second book, chronicling 1,000 rasam recipes, for nearly 12 years. Her first book, Usha’s Pickle Digest, was published two decades ago.

Another variation of rasam uses buttermilk, she adds. It is thickened with grated coconut and crushed yellow gram, spiced with ginger and chilli and tempered with cumin and curry leaves. She cites a research paper which describes rasam as traditional functional food, a term used for dishes considered to be therapeutic and made using locally available ingredients. The paper, titled A Comprehensive Review On Rasam: A South Indian Traditional Functional Food, was published on the website of the National Center for Biotechnology Information in 2017.

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Broadly speaking, rasam in Tamil Nadu has the distinct flavour of asafoetida. In Andhra Pradesh, where rasam is known as charu, fiery Guntur chillies spice it up; and in Kerala it is redolent with black pepper. Maharashtra too has a variation of rasam, known as saar. “Both saar and rasam translate into extract or essence. While rasam might have dal or meat essence, saar has tamarind," explains Ashok.

Traditionally, both saar and rasam accompany a heavy rice meal. In Tamil households, where rice is integral to lunch and dinner, rasam is served to balance a thick and heavy side dish. In Maharashtra’s Nagpur, gola bhaat, rice mixed with fried, spiced gram- flour balls, is accompanied by tempered tamarind water saar.

Prabhakaran’s book on rasam, scheduled for release later this year, has age-old recipes with bamboo shoot, lotus stem, neem flower, betelleaf and fruits like pineapple and apple.

Growing up in Kerala, chef Regi Mathew, founder of the restaurant Kappa Chakka Kandhari in Bengaluru, recalls that rasam was not part of his everyday meal. “My mother would give us peppery rasams if we were unwell or had a cold," he says. The chef, who spent about three years travelling across Kerala researching its sub-regional dishes, believes there is perhaps no greater unifier and leveller than rasam. It cuts across class and caste, though it may not be regular fare in every household. For instance, it is not prevalent in communities like the Mappila Muslims or Syrian Christians. It is, however, widespread in Namboodiri Brahmin kitchens, where it is made without garlic. In a traditional Kerala sadya feast, he says, rasam is the second last course, had just before curd, which balances its strong flavours. If you are having rasam like a soup, Mathew suggests adding a little steamed rice for a dose of carbohydrate and texture.

In April, Chennai-based Ashok, who has more than 54,000 Twitter followers, created an intriguing videotitled The Art Of Rasam with inputs from his grand-aunt. Featuring different rasams, it was modelled like a presentation, with each recipemapped in a tabular format to categorize the elemental components of the dish.

The video, posted on YouTube and Twitter, represents his approach to cooking as a “meta sense of patterns", he says. “The phrase implies understanding basic principles to build a dish instead of merely recreating recipes. In regional cooking, although the ingredients vary depending on availability, these aspects remain unchanged," explains Ashok, who is working on a book, Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking, to be published later this year by Penguin India. His startlingly simple method standardizes rasam into six components—stock one or base stock, flavouring one or base flavours, acid, stock two, flavouring two and tempering. In the video, the acid for all recipes is tamarind, water is the uniform base stock, fat includes coconut oil, sesame oil or ghee, while base two varies and can include dal water, meat stock or even seafood stock.

Rasam is not necessarily a vegetarian thing; one of the tastiest versions is actually a mutton rasam," he says. Umami-rich shrimp rasam is coastal fare. The shells of deveined shrimps are packed with flavour and this stock goes intorasam, while the discarded shells are ground and used as manure. Ashok grows lemongrass in his kitchen garden and likes to add it to his shrimp rasam. This is a Thai spin, not necessarily a coastal rendition typical to India. Is it even a rasam? He says: “Authenticity in food is a very stupid idea. In a sense, every household has their own take on recipes. So, what is authentic?"

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