Understanding rasam February 18, 2007Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.
It’s all connected with pattern recognition.
For instance, you can tell the difference between a pizza and an uthappam without straining your corpus callosum. One is based on dough, the other has batter; there’s wonderful melted cheese on one, but if the other has cheese, it’s a fake, there’s stuff under the cheese in one, there’s chopped onions on the other. One is baked, the other is fried. Once you understand the pattern, you’re on firm ground. You know that only someone living in the suburbs of Bombay would eat an uthappam and pay for a pizza, and not feel like a yap.
But take the wonderful south Indian concoction called rasam, and suddenly you will be in a tamarind quagmire, where rules collapse unpredictably and identities change casually, so that even if you know where rasam begins, you’d be a genius to know where it ends.
Rasam, for those new to the concept, means juice, and in this case, it refers to the juice of the tamarind, on which any self-respecting rasam is based.
Or ought to be, at any rate. The thing is, there’s simply no telling with rasam. You may suddenly stumble, in a later paragraph, on a rasam that has eschewed tamarind but has not been disowned. Or one that has no dal and yet fits into the family. Or, scandal of scandals, one that has no rasam powder but also no identity crisis.
Rasams, more in kind and number than I could count on the fingers of a hand, were a standard part of childhood, coming usually with tales from the Panchatantra. The ingredients were a mother, a storybook, and a plate of steaming rice. Rice would be mashed by mother’s fist with boiled tuvar dal laced with aromatic clarified butter and a touch of salt. A little hill would be made, a valley bored down from the peak, and hot rasam poured into it, coriander leaves trailing. The children would get their fists into the meal, while the Panchatantra whispered. Later we learnt that some of the distinctive flavour of the rasam came from the alloy of the vessel in which it was prepared. Iyam, them called it.
No one uses iyam vessels very much any more, ever since they found out they contain lethal lead, but in my humble opinion rasam doesn’t need help from alloy or compound. You will now remind me, and rightly, of pattern recognition, where all this began. How does one, you ask, recognise rasam without losing one’s sense of well-being?
Not possible, in my humble view.
You could say that it’s rasam if it contains tamarind but then so does sambar, and that isn’t rasam.
Well, you argue on bravely though foolishly, then let’s say it should have tuvar dal too. No good. You’re still in sambar territory.
So add rasam powder, you say, taking the cheap and easy way out. But even there rasam slips away: the Unsuspected Pepper Rasam is made without rasam powder. For that matter, the Hardly Known Gottu Rasam is made without tuvar dal; and the Amazing Lemon Rasam is made without tamarind. To top it all, the Splendiferous Paneer Rasam, which has nothing to do with cottage cheese is served exclusively at weddings, is made of rose petals.
It’s time I let the secrets out of the bag, starting with the fundamental rasam powder itself. When made negligently, with arrogance and overconfidence, rasam powder can be the death of rasam. So do be diligent, as follows:
Take about 15 red chillies, remove the stalks, dab some cooking oil over them, and dry fry over a low flame till they puff up with self importance every so slightly.
Now dry roast 4 tbsp coriander seeds, 2 tbsp channa ka daal, and 2 tbsp urad dal, till the urad turns golden.
Finally, dry roast 1 tbsp tuvar dal, 1 tbsp whole black pepper, and 1 tbsp cummin seeds, till the black pepper begins crackling with excitement.
Grind these to a coarse powder.
Generic rasam: To make this, cook a cup of tuvar dal to a mellow softness with a little turmeric powder and salt. Soak a lemon-sized ball of tamarind in 2 cups of lukewarm water, and then, with your own clean hands, squeeze out the juice and discard the pulp. Add 1 tomato chopped large, 2 tsps rasam powder, 1/2 tsp turmeric powder and 2 springs of curry leaves to the tamarind water, and boil till the level comes down by about a 1/4″.
Pour a cup of cold water to the tuvar dal, and add this to the tamarind water. You should have soaked a little bit of LG’s asafoetida in water an hour earlier. Add about a teaspoonful of this to the pot, and heat it over a medium flame. Remove it just before it comes to a boil. Garnish with fried mustard seeds and fresh coriander.
Now the circus variations.
Pepper rasam: All steps as in Generic Rasam, except that you leave out the rasam powder entirely. Instead dissolve 1.5 tsps black pepper powder, 1.5 tsps sugar and 1 tsp red chilly powder in a 2 tbsps of water, and add it before bringing to a boil at the end.
Lemon rasam: No tamarind. Instead, in 2 cups of water, boil 1 large chopped tomato, several pieces of sliced ginger, several halved green chillies, and 2 tsps rasam powder. Rest as ;in Generic Rasam. Curry leaves instead of coriander as garnish.
Paneer rasam: Make the Generic Rasam, but let it stand for a while and separate the thin liquid that stay on top. Add 2 tbsp of rosewater, and a few petals of the Edward Rose. No asafoetida, please, there are ladies in the room.
Eat like a child. Use your hands, home-made clarified butter, and make sure you spend a long time mashing rice, ghee and tuvar dal together before adding the rasam. And enjoy the Panchatantra.