Living the Good Life…

My food blog & cookbook in progress

Ode to Rasam

I’m not sure if rasam derives from the root word “ras” whose original meaning in Sanskrit/Hindi is nectar, as in the drink from the gods, but even if it isn’t, the allusion is apt. I really believe that there’s nothing to beat a piping hot rasam, especially on a cold winter’s day.

Rasam is probably the first South Indian thing I ever tried to make in the kitchen, having first pried the recipe from my mother on the eve of departure from Edmonton in 1988, sitting on the hardwood floors of my Garneau Towers apartment. Not that she was secretive, far from it, but until then most of my cooking has been of the Western variety, baking etc, for which I followed recipes scrupulously from books using all the right measuring cups spoons etc. So when I sat down to get the recipes from my mother, I was really frustrated when she couldn’t give me quantities. “Some” of this, or “a handful” of that was about as specific as she could get.

Evidently, my frustration with that method did not last long, as borne out by my own recipes in this site. But that first day, I didn’t know WHAT to do. Didn’t take me long though. To paraphrase an expression that my mother uses in Tamil – “vai ketudunal kai kekum” which roughly translates as, “when the tongue craves the hand behaves.” (This is just one of those bizarre linguistic happenstances when the translation rhymes as well as or even better than the original!)

Classic tomato-ginger rasam

Toor daal* is the basis for this, and in fact, all versions of rasam, though yellow moong, split peas and pink masoor may stand in as (distinctly second class) substitutes. I usually make this rasam one or two days after I’ve prepared a batch of sambaar** having set aside a small up of cooked daal in the fridge for this purpose.

Cut one or two ripe tomatoes (peeled canned tomatoes work great also, and are even preferred by some folk) and boil in water – plain or a dilute tamarind solution – along with slivers of fresh ginger, one or two green chilly slit into two lenghtwise, rasam powder*** to taste, salt, a pinch of asafoetida, and some turmeric. When the tomatoes are well cooked (skins peeling off is one good hint) add the cooked daal (if frozen do defrost for some hours ) and warm it through with a fresh spoonful of fresh powder. Remove from heat just as mixture comes to a boil – Do NOT allow to continue to boil.

Just before you’re ready to serve the rasam, heat a little oil (1-2 teaspoons) in a small saucepan with some mustard seeds and when the seed begin to pop, turn off the heat and add a sprig of curry leaves if available, to the oil. Pour the contents of the the seasonings over the rasam and bring to table, garnished with chopped cilantro (coriander leaves) if the curry leaves are not available. Serve with plain boiled white rice that is well cooked (a shorter grain rice works better than basmati as an accompaniment for rasam) and a vegetable sidedish (okra or potato or green beans made the South Indian way are some of my favorite sides). A crunchy side of poppadums or even plain potato chips also make a nice, but not essential**** addition. Of course, most of our North Indian friends (and some Southies too) preferred to dispense with all the side stuff and simply drink this rasam as a soup from cups. Its pretty darn good that way too.

* See Daal tutorial for information
** Recipe in “Dishes with daal (ytk)”
*** Recipe for rasam powder in chapter on “masal means;” If none of this powder is at hand it’s just as easy to use Sambaar powder and a generous amount of black pepper.
**** Mahesh (my brother) would disagree I’m sure. As far as he’s concerned no meal is complete without something from that crunch department.

Variations on theme

Try this rasam using fresh or canned (but unsweetened) pineapple (juice and all) instead of tomatoes. Omit the tamarind and lemon – pineapples are usually plenty tart on their own.

Kottu rasam or jeera rasam

This version of rasam is my personal favorite, not just tastewise but also because it’s easy to make at short notice just as long as one has a blender. It’s also the favorite of my of my latter-day (non-B-22) roomie Radha, who’s been known to call and have me walk her through the opening stages of preparation. Here’s the basic version as I make it, followed by some possible variations.

Pour some boiling water over a mixture of 1tsp jeera (cumin seeds), a fistful (2-3 tblsp) of toor daal, 1/2 to 1 tsp of whole black pepper corns and a few dried chillies. Allow to soak and soften for at least 1/2 hour. Meanwhile boil together some tamarind water with salt and asafoetida and 1-2 tomatoes chopped into small pieces (optional). As the water is boiling, grind the soaked spices in the same liquid in a blender – you should end up with a thick brownish slurry. When the tomatoes are cooked, add the blended mixture and bring to a boil just once. (This is very important – try not to let this rasam come to a boil again in subsequent reheatings as well).

Season the rasam but melting some ghee or butter in a small pan  with both mustard and cumin seeds until the former begin to pop. Remove from heat, add curry leaves to the hot oil/ghee and then pour the contents over the rasam. Serving suggestions (including the soup) are the same as for the classic rasam.


1) Garlic (poondu) rasam. Add a few cloves of peeled garlic to the tamarind water and boil until the cloves become translucent. Apparently a good addition to the diet of lactating mothers, but the rest of us (male and female) garlic lovers like it even otherwise.

2) Methi (fenugreek) rasam – if you are like me and like the faint bitterness imparted by methi seeds, you can try adding some (no more than 1/2 tsp) methi seeds in lieu of cumin to the spice mixture. Or add a combination. And if you have fresh methi greens at hand, use those leaves instead of curry leaves for seasoning.

3) This version was created in an emergency in Seetha’s kitchen in D.C. when we we had no fresh or canned tomatoes or tamarind but were sick with some sort of viral flu and craving this ultimate comfort food. So I used a large yellow lemon rind and all and quartered it lengthwise, and boiled it along with sun-dried tomatoes which reconstituted wonderfully during the boil. The end result was very good.

4) Rasamargerita – I have not personally tried this last version myself but got the idea from the aforementioned Radha’s big sister, Revati. It’s quirky impromptu-ness really appealed to me and so I thought to include it. Ready? Instead of tamarind water she used a very tart  margarita mix as her base. I’m not sure if her version included tomatoes or not, or for that matter, any tequila. I would suggest omitting the former (maybe use a whole lemon as I did in variation 3) and serving the latter on the side  ;)

No comments yet»

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: