Kitchen Intuition: Rasam

Authored By aliceodea

Back in February, I got an invitation from a friend, neighbor and local artist, Kim Printz (find her here or at Area 61), to join her for lunch. She had made some soup-lots of it-and wanted to share, and it ended up being a revelation for me. The soup is a southern Indian staple called rasam, and after lunch, I explored a bit and realized that this dish could serve as the basis for another quick, easy, flexible and cheap meal on those days when you get home and need to be able to just whip something up from whatever you’ve got in the pantry. It is easily either vegan or gluten-free, and there are tons of different variations, so feel free to make up your own version.

If you happen to be at an Asian or Indian grocery and want to stock up, there are a few things to watch for. None of these ingredients are required (my research turned up recipes that make no mention of them), but they could add depth and authenticity to your dish. Keep an eye out for tamarind paste (which you can also use when you make pad thai), rasam powder, asafetida, curry leaves and split pigeon peas (and as an aside, while you don’t need them for this dish, as long as you’re at a specialty market, you also might pick up some atta flour for chapati and chickpea flour for farinata and tortillitas). I confirmed that most, if not all, of these items are available at India Bazar; they’re all ingredients that are commonly found in most Indian groceries.

“Rasam” means “juice,” and at first, this dish was served as a beverage (and still is, in some parts of India); but in more recent times, cooks started to thicken it up and serve it as a soup, usually with rice. The basic ingredients are often split pigeon peas (which are similar to lentils), tomatoes, tamarind, chili pepper, cumin and black pepper, but this is a dish that can easily go in other directions, so don’t worry if you’re missing something. Here is a very quick, basic recipe and a more elaborate version that could serve as a place to start, with measurements that offer some sense of the proportions involved.

You can get premixed rasam powder at some stores, but it’s easy enough to mix up some yourself, and there is no shortage of recipes available online. It usually consists of a combination of ground chickpeas, split peas, coriander, cumin, black pepper, fenugreek, cloves, cinnamon, red pepper, curry leaves, turmeric and paprika. The spices are often dry roasted in a skillet and, if necessary, ground in a spice mill.

The tamarind can be purchased as a paste, in a block or in pods. Pods must be broken open to scrape out the pulp that surrounds the seeds; if you have a block, just cut off a piece. Either way, soak the pulp in warm water for a half-hour or so, and then run it through a food mill or push it through a sieve. That will give you a purée similar to the paste that comes in a jar. If you don’t have tamarind paste, a glug of lime juice will add a similar sour kick.

A lot of recipes call for fresh tomatoes, but using canned is fine when they’re out of season. If you want to end up with a thicker soup, you could start with some rinsed lentils or split peas and let them simmer in water until they’re soft. For a smoother result, let them get very soft and then run the lentils and their broth through a blender. Some recipes alternatively call for cooking and straining the lentils, and using just the cooking liquid in the rasam while saving the actual lentils for another use.

There are several times during the cooking when you might add spices. If you’re simmering lentils in stock, you could add larger spices like cinnamon sticks, ginger root, whole cloves and peppercorns so that they might flavor the broth and then be discarded. Spices and seeds are also often roasted in a skillet for a minute or two, until fragrant. Or, if you’re planning to use an onion, you can roast things like mustard seeds, curry leaves and asafetida (a little goes a long way), cook until fragrant, then add the onion and cook until soft. After this, pour in the tomatoes and then the ground spices, like rasam powder and turmeric, before letting the pot simmer.

And, of course, seasonings can also be added toward the end of cooking to keep their flavors at the surface. Some others to add at this point (or as an optional garnish at the table) are lemon juice, coconut milk or yogurt. Stir them in and let the soup reheat, and serve over rice or other grain. Possible garnishes include grated coconut, cilantro or a sprinkle of roasted sesame seeds.

I made a batch this week, using the more elaborate recipe as a starting point. I didn’t have black mustard, urad dal or fresh Chinese parsley, but I had everything else and either tried to make reasonable substitutions or just left them out. I thought it turned out a little thin, so next time, I’ll use less water and/or more split peas. It wasn’t quite as exciting as Kim’s soup, but it was still delicious, and I’m looking forward to making it again soon. I like the idea that it lends itself to tinkering, so it probably won’t come out the same way twice.

Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.