Saaru, sathumadam or chaar? Or is it the tony ‘mulligatawny’ that we have in mind? Turns out the rasam isn’t such a simple affair after all
Story- According to Lizzie Collingham in her book, Curry of Cooks and Conquerors, when the British took up residence in the Madras Presidency and asked their cooks (who were locals) to rustle up a soup for starters, this is what happened. Since the concept of soup is an alien one to Indian cuisine and necessity is the Amma of Invention, the clever ‘Madrassis’ took rasam, tweaked it around by adding rice, vegetables and meat and served it – probably a little nervously - to their British…dare I say “masters”? The result was such a hit that very soon, no “Anglo-Indian” dinner party or ball was considered complete if “very hot mullagatani soup” was not on the menu. And the by then “Madrassi British” quaffed it in such large quantities that they earned the nickname “Mulls”!
So, while South Indians will sneer at this question, it is one that begs to be asked.
Not ‘South Indian soup’
Well, the most common description that I have come across is “a South Indian soup.” Which is tantamount to saying that Lata Mangeshkar is a singer.
Because there are rasams and there are rasams. So many of them that you could say that “rasam” is actually a entire continent, populated with thousands of rasam gotrams. Some are minimalists – just water, delicately but fabulously infused with the souls of a few, select spices and a souring agent. (The term “mullagatani’ or “mulligatawny” is a corruption of the Tamil “milugai tanni”, meaning pepper water.) Other are more complex and robust, made by boiling a dal, then flavouring and seasoning it in all manner of ways. Some are flamboyantly fiery, others more subtle and sly in their sting. Most rasams are tart, but a few are sweet-and-sour, the most famous example being “obattu saaru” (or “holige saaru”) in Karnataka, a by-product of “obattus” or puranpolis! Some are made in a matter of minutes, others choose to slowly simmer and seethe for hours before they are ready. And some are not even called rasam. For example, in Karnataka, the term used is ‘saaru’, in Andhra Pradesh it is ‘chaaru’ and even in Tamil Nadu where the term “rasam” is supposed to have originated, there are variants like “sathamudhu” and “pulichaar”.
So, what is rasam?
Perhaps the answer is in the etymology of the word “rasam”. It is derived from the Tamil ‘irasam’ and the Sanskrit “rasa” both of which mean ‘essence’ or ‘extract’. And so, if one were to look for an inclusive description, this is basically what rasam is. A set of ingredients cooked together so that they give up their signature flavours to mingle and marry into a fabulously redolent, delicious…well, what should be called a symphony but I’ll settle for the more mundane ‘soup’.
Naturally, the next question is - what are those ingredients?
Ah. It is one almost as difficult to answer as “what is rasam?”. Because the crafty rasam cook can extract a rasam from almost anything. Dals of every kind. (Though tuvar dal is the most commonly used.) Tomato. Tamarind. Pineapple. Ginger. Kokum. Lime. Citron. Curry Leaves. Garlic. Even kanji - the excess water remaining after rice has been cooked – is cleverly seasoned to become a rasam that you will find in the Udupi region of Karnataka. There is also a rasam made out of neem flowers - vepampoo rasam, prepared especially during the Tamil New Year, when the neem trees are in full bloom. In fact, I’d like to think that the first rasam was the brainwave of a desperate cook forced to feed unexpected guests with a larder that was almost bare and I am reminded of that story of the man who made soup out of stones. So, who knows? Maybe there is a rasam that is indeed made out of stones!
But stone or water, no rasam is possible without the presence of its star performers – spices. The array is impressive and one that reaffirms the South Indian cook’s reputation of being a master (or should that be mistress?!) of spices. Red dried chillies, black pepper, coriander, cumin, methi and mustard seeds, asafoetida - to name the more popular ones. Some roasted, often with dals; some broiled in a little oil. Sometimes ground into paste, but more often than not combined in hundreds of permutations and combinations and then powdered to become those maddeningly aromatic, jealously guarded secrets called “rasam powder” that are passed on from one generation to another and considered almost as precious as the family jewels!