CFO 001: Rasam or the essence of the spices

This is the first post in a series of brief cooking notes that I started writing for a friend, who was at a loss at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown. He had lost his mother, his ailing dad was 92, his maid had stopped coming, no food of any kind was available, and he had not clue about cooking.

Reading recipes or watching cooking videos has been a hobby for long, even if I had no intention of making that dish. Also if I already knew a different way of making it. In the process, one only enriches knowledge on different cooking processes and practices. It can spur you on to be more creative, and end up devising new ways of making something. Of late, in the pandemic lockdown, I am in the process of revisiting some old recipes, checking across sources, and making notes, especially those which are simple and easy to make for the singletons like you and me.

Today, it was all about Rasam. There is no clear translation for rasam. I am calling it the essence of the spices. I already made it the simple way I know best. That is boil water with sliced tomatoes, and after the tomatoes are cooked, add a ready to cook paste (I used Grand Sweets and Snacks, or GSS), one tea spoon for each 100 ml., and garnish with coriander leaves. One could even do with MTR readymade rasam powder, or other powders.

But, the problem with the readymade pastes is that you have no control over what goes into it. While you can trust some of the better known brands, there is nothing like adding ingredients on your own and work your way up.

KT Achaya, the Indian food historian, writes that rasam, or pepper-water, got anglicised into mulliga-tawny, mulliga for pepper, and tawny for water. And mulligatawny remains to this day, a staple in many a restaurant, a distant cousin of what is real rasam. Lizzie Collingham, in her book on curry, writes that the corruption of the word starts with “molo tunny,” as it is colloquially pronounced in Tamil, which also means pepper water.

Collingham further writes that on being asked to make soup as a starter, being unfamiliar to the concept, they brought out what came very close. What the “Madrassi cooks knew was a watery rasam (broth) made from black pepper or chillies, tamarind, and water, which in Tamil is called molo tunny, or pepper water. Ayurvedic physicians considered pepper water “one of the great blessings which God has bestowed upon the world” and prescribed it for intermittent fever, hemorrhoids, dyspepsia, and cholera. It is still served to people recovering from a stomach upset in south India today, and a rasam of this kind is often poured over rice as a digestive. The Madrassi cooks inventively added a little rice, a few vegetables, some meat, and transformed this broth into mulligatawny soup. Anglo Indians in Madras were said to imbibe such large quantities of it that they were known as “Mulls.” Mulligatawny soup was one of the earliest dishes to emerge from the new hybrid cuisine that the British developed in India, combining British concepts of how food should be presented (as soups or stews, etc.) and Indian recipes. It quickly spread to the other British settlements dotted around the subcontinent and “very hot mulligatani soup” was invariably served at every Anglo-Indian dinner party and ball.”

I read in a 19th century British era recipe book that while improvising rasam as a soup, they used meat broth as a base, and also added rice. It is a version of this that you get in many restaurants.

I checked Samaithu Paar (literally, Cook and See) by Meenakshi Ammal, the Cooking Bible of a few generations of Tamil brides. I could find at least three different types of rasam, Paruppu Rasam, Jeera Molagu Rasam (pepper and cumin), and Mysore Rasam. And then there are the poondu rasam (Garlic), and thakkali rasam (tomato) variations. But, even she recommends using powders, which are pre-prepared and kept. And she uses cooked red and/or Bengal gram dal.

Back home, in my younger days, we would use fresh ingredients and not powders, and grind them on the heavy stones, called  ammikkallu. I don’t have a recipe for that. So, what I have done is draw ideas from different versions that I saw online and read about, and combine and improvise on them. Here is the final result:

Stage 1: Soak

Soak one lemon sized piece of tamarind in water.

Stage 2: Crush

Crush the following items separately in a mortar and pestle, or :

  1. One bunch garlic (don’t remove the skin of the individual pods)
  2. One piece ginger
  3. Ten small onions
  4. Four dry chillies
  5. Two tablespoon pepper corns
  6. 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
  7. 1 tablespoon cumin seeds

(you could alternatively gently crush in a mixie and/or use readymade powders for convenience)

Stage 3: Sautee

Keep a vessel, kadhai, what we call a cheenchatti, or anything which can be used for cook, serve, and store, on low flame.

Pour two tablespoon coconut oil.

Add 1 tbsp mustard seeds, 1 tbsp uluva (fenugreek).

When the above splutters, add curry leaves (two small branches) and four dry red chillies (not the crushed ones).

Add crushed onion, ginger and garlic, and stir till the onions lose their freshness.

Add crushed coriander seeds, red chillies, pepper corns.

Add half tea spoon asafoetida (hing or kayam) and half teaspoon turmeric powder. Stir for a minute or so till they are well blended and lose their freshness.

Stage 4: Cook

Add required quantity of water, say half litre, to the soaked tamarind, and add here, leaving out the tamarind pulp. You could use a strainer.

Add required quantity of salt. Add two chopped tomatoes and cook till the tomatoes are well cooked. (You could alternately mash halves of tomatoes with your hand into the tamarind water).

Stage 5: Garnish

Switch off and garnish with chopped coriander leaves.

Variations: Some people leave out tomatoes as tamarind is already there. Traditional recipes do not include coriander leaves. And some others leave out cumin seeds. Garlic, ginger and pepper corns are increased or reduced depending on your taste. You could also add small quantity cooked Bengal gram or red dal like Meenakshi Ammal.

I prefer adding the coriander leaves and the tomatoes for the combination of colours they give. This adds to the taste.

There you are!

KT Achaya, the Indian food historian, writes that rasam, or pepper-water,
got anglicised into mulliga-tawny, mulliga for pepper, and tawny for water. And
mulligatawny remains to this day, a staple in many a restaurant, a distant
cousin of what is real rasam. Lizzie Collingham, in her book on curry, writes
that the corruption of the word starts with “molo tunny,” as it is
colloquially pronounced in Tamil, which also means pepper water.

KT Achaya, the Indian food historian, writes that rasam, or pepper-water,
got anglicised into mulliga-tawny, mulliga for pepper, and tawny for water. And
mulligatawny remains to this day, a staple in many a restaurant, a distant
cousin of what is real rasam. Lizzie Collingham, in her book on curry, writes
that the corruption of the word starts with “molo tunny,” as it is
colloquially pronounced in Tamil, which also means pepper water.

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