Rasam: the Indian version of comforting and panaceous chicken soup

Rasam is a thin, soup-like dish with endless variations, and it’s a beloved comfort food in India. Anthropologist Deepa S.Reddy went down a rassam rabbit hole during lockdown and discovered its socio-cultural meanings and the joy of eating rasam.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KCRW: What is rasam?

Deepa S.Reddy: Rasam is a thin, bubbly soup dish that is usually prepared with the broth of legumes or lentils, leafy greens, and sometimes meats. There may be other vegetables added. For example, tomatoes are quite common and some specific spices are used to flavor the broth. Then it’s finished with a whole spice and curry leaf soak, which is really like creating a finishing oil on the spot that helps dissolve some of the spices. It is used to impart different layers and layers of flavor. When the temper is poured over the rest of them, it’s really quite dramatic. It fills the house with aromas. It’s like an invitation to the dinner table. So you know when lunch or dinner or whatever is ready to be served when rasam is ready.

Is rasam a dish eaten all over India?

Rasam is a dish belonging to the southern states of India. It is called by a few different names in these areas – rasam, ssaru, charu. But they are all allies, and allied preparations. There are also several different regional interpretations of this dish, and some may be thicker or more acidic, and they all play slightly different roles in the regional diet. There’s a big continuum, and rasam is a beach on that continuum. But the principles that are used in making rasam are common to almost all Indian cuisine.

As everywhere in traditional food systems, most Indian home cooks are very thrifty, very frugal and very averse to waste. Almost everything is used in one way or another, even if it’s feeding the crows and feeding the cows. Everything from the most unfriendly vegetable peels to the stems of green vegetables to the skin of jackfruit are used. Very little is wasted.

Now we call it a zero waste lifestyle. But this ethic has defined Indian food and diet for much longer. There’s a lot of ingenuity and creativity to make it work. And realism is part of this ecology, so the cooking broth is never thrown away. It is still considered a taste in its own right. And even things like leftover chutney, or water used to cook potatoes, or water used to wash rice can be made into rasam. Rasams are a regional expression of the pan-Indian approach to cooking and food.

When do we eat rasam? Does it have a particular role in the context of a meal?

Rasam has a very specific role. The full traditional South Indian meal includes what we might call dishes, although they are not as large or as inconspicuous as we tend to think. It’s much more that there is a specific sequence of serving and a suggested order of eating. For example, during festivals or ceremonies, we usually eat on banana leaves, and the first thing to put on the banana leaf is often something sweet. It’s very symbolic, but it’s not the first thing we actually eat. The first thing we eat tends to be the heavier dishes, thicker dals, richer, more sauce-based meats or curries. All of these things are eaten with rice, or sometimes with rotis, or other breads.

Then when all that heaviness starts hitting your stomach, then comes the rasam. It’s lighter. It’s also quite fiery in its own way. It usually contains spices known to aid digestion. So rasam is almost like this call to awaken the senses. It’s almost like saying, “Hey, wake up, your digestive juices need to be flowing because you’re definitely going to need them right now.”

This is followed by a chill or chill with yogurt and rice, which might seem like kind of an odd combination if you’re used to fruit-sweetened yogurt combinations, but it really is another Indian favourite. So this curd rice, as we call it, really signals the end of the meal and the rasam is the penultimate dish.

Rasam is fiery. Does that mean its spiciness level is hot because of the chilli?

It’s hot because of the chilli. It also contains several other spices. The most characteristic heat of rasam is chili and black pepper. So it’s partly that, but it’s also that combination of other spices that can sometimes enhance that feeling of spice perception.

Is Rasam already drunk alone as a pick-me-up?

Yes absolutely. It can even be a meal on its own, as part of a full meal. People sometimes decide to drink only rasam because they are too full to eat it, along with even more rice. In this particular context, rasam can replace a very light soup. It can even be as light as a tea. It can be a pick-me-up.

Sometimes tea-like infusions are used to make the broth to make rasams – for specific illnesses like coughs, colds and COVID. For recovery, rasam is the go-to option. It’s lively, it’s intense. So it revives those taste buds, which have been dulled by fevers or viral effects. It has all of these medicinal and digestive spices in it, so it’s good for soothing the throat, providing vitamin C, and it’s easy on the stomach. And all that good cooking broth has a lot of food in it. So, with some sweet rice, it’s kind of the Indian equivalent of chicken soup for the soul.

Is that why you decided to focus on rasam during the lockdown?

There is a wide variety of recipe preparations – as many creative cooks as you have in as many restaurants as you can produce. I think the reason I started documenting rasam was because for me, as an ethnographer, it was fascinating to work out rasam taxonomies, since there are so many of them. I had this desire to want to categorize and classify them. But I also wanted to highlight the huge diversity and wanted to highlight some of the quirky and lesser-known restaurants, where rasam can be made with special regional ingredients, or seasonal fruits or wild vegetables, or even coconut milk.

Are there standard building blocks for making rasam?

There are recipes made by first cooking a broth. But rasam really wants to highlight a specific taste. It usually contains one key ingredient that gave it its name. I tend to refer to it as the protagonist of the recipe – rasam is a theatrical representation of cooking.

Rasam is going to have a broth, it’s going to have a star ingredient, an acidifier, a powdered spice blend, and a whole spice temper. The preparation of the rasam bringing all these things together has a rhythm of its own, which starts very slowly and then develops into a kind of crescendo. The preparation of the cooking base, for example, must be slow. Adding an acidifying agent like tamarind may take some time as the raw smell and taste of the Tamron needs to dissipate. But then the pace picks up very quickly because the spices that are added to the resins are really only simmered; they are never boiled. It is believed that boiling them destroys their flavor and destroys their effect.

The recipe is going to demand your full attention towards the end because everything is going to happen in such rapid succession. The combination of lentils and spices will make the recipe all frothy at the top and it looks like it’s about to boil over, like boiling milk. This is when you prepare the temper. You drop these dry spices like cumin and mustard seeds into hot oil and add the curry leaves and everything crackles, crackles and pumps vigorously. Then you quickly take this and lay this temperament on top of this lovely frothy rasam, so it produces that very characteristic sizzling sound that everyone recognizes. I think that sometimes the pleasure of this moment in the preparation of the recipe is as important as the recipe itself.

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