Rasam is something taken very seriously in South Indian kitchens. It is derived from the word ‘rasa’ that means juice or extract. The other names for rasam include ‘chaaru’ in Telugu and ‘saaru’ in Kannada. Here too, the word saaru is derived from the word ‘saar’ which means essence. Rasam, at its soul, is the distillated essence of tangy tamarind, tomatoes and a potpourri of roasted spices, enriched light-handedly with creamy lentil puree.
You could say rasam is the South Indian apertif. Having a a thin consistency, it is served before the meal in a small ‘kulhad’ or stainless steel glass. The magical power of rasam is that its tang not only tingles the taste buds and whets the appetite, but the spices also quietly protects the human body from various health issues. Coriander, cumin and asafoetida are carminatives and benefit digestion, while black pepper and turmeric are anti-inflammatories. Tamarind, the base for all the varieties, adds iron to the diet, all the more important for vegetarians and vegans.
Although the fiery orange tomato rasam is the most basic and soothing of all rasam, there is no limit to the variations, such as pineapple rasam, lemon rasam and raw mango rasam. The rule is to stick to sour, astringent ingredients as therein lies the soul and purpose of rasam – a tangy, digestive-boosting soup.
Rasam is best served with plain rice, flavored pulao or doughy chapati for soaking up all the tangy spiced goodness. Rasam podi can be used in variety of ways besides making rasam, such as in hummus or sprinkling onto your next avocado toast.
- 72 g (1 cup) coriander seeds
- 12 g (2 tbsp) cumin seeds
- 20 g (2 tbsp) black mustard seeds
- 20 g (1 1/2 tbsp) fenugreek seeds
- 1 tsp ghee
- 18 g (2 tbsp) whole black peppercorns
- 2 (3-inch) cinnamon sticks
- 3/4 cup fresh curry leaves, loosely packed
- 40 dried red chiles or 60 dried Byadgi chiles, stems removed and seeded
- 1/4 tsp asafoetida
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- Over medium-low heat, roast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, black mustard seeds and fenugreek separately. Transfer each batch to a plate to cool.
- Add 1/2 teaspoon of ghee to the pan. When melted, add the black peppercorns and cinnamon sticks and stir and fry until they are fragrant and sputter. Transfer to the plate to cool.
- Add another 1/4 teaspoon ghee to the pan. When melted, add the curry leaves. Roast the leaves, stirring, until they have dried completely and start to curl up. Transfer the leaves to the plate to cool.
- Add the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of ghee to the pan. When melted, add the dried red chiles. Stir and fry them until they warm up and become fragrant. Turn off the heat.
- Add the rest of the roasted ingredients to the pan and mix. Allow all the spices to cool, then grind to a fine powder in a spice grinder. Mix in the asafetida and turmeric powder. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 months at room temperature, and longer in the refrigerator.
- This recipe yields 2 cups of Rasam Podi. All powdered spices lose their potency if they are stocked for a long period of time. You can make half or quarter of the recipe if you do not use Rasam Podi frequently or cooking for home use.
- 720 g (3 cups) water, plus more as needed
- 454 g (4 medium) ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced (see Notes for variations)
- 2 tsp rasam powder
- 64-128 g (1/2-1 cup) basic dal, cooked (toor dal, moong dal or masoor dal)
- 5 g (1 tsp) tamarind paste
- 3 g (1 tsp) coconut sugar
- Himalayan salt, to taste
- 10 g (1 tbsp) ghee
- 1/2 tsp black mustard seeds
- 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
- 2-3 fresh curry leaves
- Pinch asafoetida
- Chopped cilantro leaves, to garnish
- In a soup pot, combine the tomatoes, 1/2 tsp of rasam powder, and 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil and cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Make sure the rasam powder is dissolved; you should see a golden residue forming on top of the boiling soup. Add in the coconut sugar and tamarind paste.
- When the soup turns red and the tomatoes are falling apart, add the cooked dal to the pot and remaining 2 cups of water and 1 1/2 tsp of rasam powder to the pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Taste for sour, spicy, sweet and salt and adjust accordingly.
- Temper the mustard, asafetida, cumin, cinnamon and curry leaves. Immediately pour the spiced ghee over the rasam. Garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve Tomato Rasam with rice or chapati.
- Substitute tomatoes with any sour, astringent food, such as raw mango, pineapple, pomegranate or even cranberries for a festive holiday rasam.