My, how chilly it’s been in Atlanta this winter!
Since the snow fell a couple of weeks ago, the cold weather has lingered, which means I can finally put my winter coats, boots, and hats to use.
It also means I have a great excuse to make soup. Light, flavorful, and full of nutrients, I find that soups are a healthy and fulfilling way to find comfort in the colder months. Typically, this is the time when sniffles, sore throats and coughs settle in, so I like to leverage ingredients like ginger, pepper, and turmeric to boost immunity and help ward off the colds.
One of my favorite comfort foods (and incidentally, a type of soup) is the south Indian dish known as rasam. When I tell fellow Indians that rasam is the dish I would probably request as my last meal, I sometimes receive laughs because it is considered to be simple: a watery mixture at its core. However, I grew up on this dish and loved it. My mom always gave this a thicker consistency by adding blended lentils, so it turned into a heartier dish for me. I have fond childhood memories of her making rasam when I was growing up, and I find that its simplicity is part of the charm.
I remember specifically one time when I was a kid, when my family and I were traveling through Indonesia, after several days of eating gado gado sauce, all I finally wanted was some spicy, savory, rasam. There, in the middle of the Bali Intercontinental Resort, surrounded by world-class food, all I craved was a cup of my mother’s home-cooked rasam. (At the end of the day, even Michelin has nothing on mom’s home cooking, am I right?)
Food that heals
Rasam, literally means “essence” and, as its name denotes, this dish is a “juice” of sorts that sometimes leverages tamarind or lemon juice. When I was a kid, my mom would make two main types of rasam: a lentil and tomato version with lemon juice, or a ground cumin seed rasam, to aid in digestion.
In some forms, rasam can also include whole or ground black pepper and garlic, which is how I make it sometimes when I’m feeling congested. My mother-in-law once made this version for me when I had the flu a couple of years back, and I can’t tell you how much relief I felt sinking into a bowl of such savory, flavorful warmth. After all, the ingredients in this dish are meant to lead the body back to wellness, according to Jolene Hart’s “Eat Pretty” guide to beautifying nutrition:
- Ginger, which has antiviral and immune-boosting properties is known to help ease congestion;
- Turmeric decreases inflammatory pain and expedites healing;
- Garlic (optional), is also bursting with anti-inflammatory properties; and
- Black pepper (optional), known to clear the sinuses and relieve cold symptoms.
Typically in south India, we serve this dish over rice, and alongside vegetable side dishes, though it can also be sipped in a cup on its own. Often, the latter is served as a starter at catered parties and hotels.
Choose your own adventure
Since rasam is so simple, I often don’t have any measurements or methods written down to make it. I simply make it the way I remember my mom teaching me, (and even then, I often make mine a little spicier to taste). However, each time I play up whichever ingredient I think my body craves at the moment. Feeling hungry? More lentils. Feeling congested? More pepper and chilies. Feeling bloated? More ginger.
Thus, for a formal recipe, I’d recommend this one by Indian Health Recipes since it truly captures the “rasa” of rasam, including the option for tamarind juice, pepper and garlic as well.
However, I stand by the version I learned to make at home from my mom, which changes each time I make it, because it’s a constant journey, as you know. I typically ladle in about 1/2 cup – 1 cup of cooked lentils (toor dal, or split pigeon peas) for a thicker consistency.
I found that it has served me well on cold and rainy days like today.
Tomato & Lentil Rasam
(recipe from my mom, Mathura Alladi)
- 1/2 cup of toor dal (split pigeon pea lentils)
- 1/8 tsp turmeric
- 4 1/8 cups water
- 1 tbsp ghee, or clarified butter, produced by melting butter into an aromatic, translucent form and allowing the water to evaporate. (Ghee is recommended for this dish, but if unavailable, use vegetable oil)
- 1 tsp rasam powder (though I typically add more for a more heat)
- 1 large tomato, chopped into medium cubes
- 1/2 inch grated ginger
- 1/8 tsp asafoetida powder or hing powder (has strong flavor, an acquired taste)
- 1/4 tsp mustard seeds
- 1/4 tsp cumin seeds
- 2 sprigs of cilantro, 1 sprig washed and chopped, another for garnish
- 1 sprig of curry leaves
- 2 tsp lemon juice
- 1 dry red chili
- 1 green chili chopped
- salt to taste
- First, cook the lentils in 1 1/8 cup of water in a pressure cooker or stove top over medium heat until they are quite soft. Cooking on a stove top will probably require more water, so add water as needed to get the lentils completely soft. Here, I also add about 1/8 tsp of turmeric and a drop of oil to the lentils. Once thoroughly cooked, mash or blend into a pulp. Set aside.
- Separately, bring 2 cups of water and rasam powder to a boil.
- Once the water is boiling, add the asafoetida and curry leaves.
- After 2-3 minutes of cooking in the water, add the grated ginger, chopped green chili, and chunks of tomatoes. Allow the tomatoes to fully soften in the hot water.
- Once the tomatoes have cooked, add the blended lentils to the pot and stir thoroughly. Cook on medium for about 6 minutes, allowing the blended lentils to mix well into the water. If the mixture seems too thick, feel free to add more water, per your taste.
- While it is cooking, in a separate saucepan, make the seasoning: Heat a tablespoon of ghee over medium-high heat. Once it begins to froth a bit, add the mustard seeds. Once the seeds begin to splatter, lower the heat and add a pinch of asafoetida, cumin seeds, red chili and curry leaves. Stir swiftly for a few seconds and then remove from heat immediately.
- Now add this seasoning to the pot of rasam, along with the chopped cilantro and lemon juice. Stir, ladle into cups, and garnish with a sprig of cilantro.