Rasam: India's version of comforting, cure-all chicken soup

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Rasam is a thin, brothy soup made from the stock of cooking pulses and lentils, and often it includes tomatoes. It’s a popular dish in the border regions of India. Photo by Shutterstock.

Rasam is a thin, soup-like dish with infinite variations, and it’s a beloved comfort dish in India. Anthropologist Deepa S. Reddy went down a rassam rabbit hole during lockdown, and uncovered its cultural-socio 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, brothy soupy dish that is typically made with the stock from cooking pulses or lentils, leafy greens, and sometimes meats. It might have some other vegetable added in. For example, tomatoes are quite common and there are certain specific spices that are used to flavor the stock. Then, it's finished with whole spice and curry leaf tempering, which is really like creating on-the-spot finishing oil that helps dissolve some of the spices. It's used to convey different layers and layers of flavor. When the tempering is poured over the rest of them, it is 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 by the time rasam is ready.

Is rasam a dish that's eaten all over India?

Rasam is a dish owned by the Southern states of India. It's called by a few different names in these areas – rasam, ssaru, charu. But they're all allied, and allied preparations. There are also several different regional interpretations of this dish, and some might be thicker, or more sour, and they all play slightly different roles in regional eating. There's a big continuum, and rasam is a range on that continuum. But the principles that are used in making rasam are common to just about all of Indian cuisine. 

Like traditional food systems everywhere, most Indian home cooks are very economically conscious, very frugal, and very averse to waste. Almost everything gets used in one way or the other, even if it means feeding the crows and feeding the cows. Everything from the most unfriendly looking vegetable peels, to the stalks of greens, to the skin of jackfruit gets used. Very little gets wasted. 

Now we call this a zero-waste lifestyle. But this ethic has defined Indian food and eating for much longer. There's a lot of ingenuity and creativity involved in making it work. And realism is part of this ecology, so the cooking stock never gets thrown out. It's always valued as a taste in its own right. And even things like leftover chutneys, or the water that's used to cook potatoes, or the water that's used to wash rice can be transformed into a rasam. Rasams are a regional expression of the Pan-Indian approach to cooking, and to food.

When is rasam eaten? Does it have a particular role within the context of a meal?

Rasam has a very specific role. The traditional full South Indian meal has what we could call courses, although they're not as large or as discreet as we tend to think of as courses. 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 will typically eat on banana leaves, and the first thing to be placed on the banana leaf is often something sweet. That's very symbolic, but it's not the first thing that we actually eat. The first thing we eat tends to be the heavier dishes, the thicker dals, the meats or the richer, more gravy-based curries. All of those things are eaten with rice, or sometimes with rotis, or other breads. 

Then, when all this heaviness is starting to hit your stomach, then comes the rasam. It's lighter. It's also quite fiery in its own way. It usually has spices that are known to aid digestion. So rasam is almost like this call to the awakening of the senses. It's almost like saying, ‘Hey, wake up, your digestive juices need to get flowing because you sure are going to need them now.’ 

That’s followed by a cooling down, or a winding down with yogurt and rice, which may seem a kind of strange combination if you're used to fruit sweet yogurt combinations, but it really is another Indian favorite. So that curd rice, as we call it, really signals the completion of the meal and rasam is the penultimate course.

Rasam is fiery. Does that mean its spice level is hot from chili? 

It's hot from chili. It's also got several other spices. The most characteristic heat in rasam is the chili and black pepper. So it's partly that, but it's also this combination of other spices which sometimes can enhance that feeling of spice perception.

Is rasam ever drunk on its own as a pick-me-up? 

Yes, absolutely. It can be a meal unto itself even, within the full meal. People will sometimes decide only to drink rasam because they're too full to eat it, with even more rice. In that particular context, rasam can take the place of a very light soup. It can even be as light as a tea. It can be a pick-me-up. 

Sometimes it's the case that tea-like infusions are used to make the stock to make rasams – for specific illnesses like coughs, colds, and COVID. For convalescence, rasam is the go to option. It's sharp, it's intense. So it perks those taste buds, which have been dulled by fevers or viral effects. It's got all these medicinal and digestive spices, so it's good for soothing the throat, for providing vitamin C, and it's easy on the stomach. And, all of that good cooking stock contains loads of nourishment. So with a little bit of soft rice, it's kind of the Indian equivalent of chicken soup for the soul.

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

There's a huge diversity 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, given that there are so many of them. I had this impulse to want to categorize and classify them. But I also wanted to showcase the huge diversity and I wanted to point out several of the unusual, lesser-known restaurants, where rasam can be made with special, regional ingredients, or some seasonal fruit or wild greens, or even coconut milk.

Are there standard building blocks for how rasam is made?

There are recipes made by cooking a stock first. But rasam really wants to showcase one specific taste. It usually has one key ingredient after which it's named. I tend to refer to this as the recipe's protagonist – rasam is a theatrical performance of the kitchen. 

Rasam is going to have a stock, it's going to have a star ingredient, a souring agent, a powdered spice mix, and a whole spice tempering. The preparation of rasam putting all of these things together has a pace of its own, which starts very slowly and then it builds up into a kind of crescendo. The preparation of the cooking stock for example must be slow. Adding in a souring agent like tamarind can take a while because the raw smell and taste of the Tamron needs to dissipate. But then, the pace picks up really quickly because the spices that are added to resins are really only simmered; they are never boiled. It's thought that boiling these 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 a quick succession. The combination of lentils and spices are going to cause the recipe to get all frothy at the top and it looks like it's about to spill over, like milk boiling over. That's when you prepare the tempering. You drop these dry spices like cumin and mustard seeds into hot oil and you add the curry leaves and everything is crackling and spluttering and pumping vigorously. Then, you quickly take this and lay that tempering over the top of that nice frothy rasam, so it makes this very characteristic sizzling sound which everybody recognizes. I think that sometimes the relishing of that moment in the preparation of the recipe is as important as the recipe itself.