You think you can make rasam?

Every once in a while, we come across a cook book that makes us want to take it home and scour through its pages. Chandra Padmanabhan's Southern Flavours, however, posed an unstated challenge, which we were more than happy to take up. A first-time cook recounts her experience

The earliest memory I have of the kitchen is of a bubbling cauldron of tomato rasam and my father hovering over it ladle in hand. Dipping a tiny spoon into the pot, he blew on the rasam and offered a taste to my mother. It would have been good -- the rasam in our house is legendary among relatives, and I have personally witnessed feuding members leave their issues outside the door with their sandals, when invited for lunch at home.

Lunch, as in any South Indian household that takes such things seriously, is a feast, several courses long. There's rice served with a thin dal to begin the meal, followed by a course of rice and rasam, followed by rice and sambar, interspersed with a glass of mor, broken with the crunch of a papadam, and a sundakai every now and then, and topped with cold thairsadam accompanied by a sweet mango, or lime pickle. If there are guests over, then a kuttu, a mor kuzhambu, payasam, and if they're really dear, an avial would be added too. It goes without saying, our dining tables were long, and lunching at the parents home was a langurous affair.

Cut to a single's life in Mumbai. There are no dining tables, and lunches are eaten before a screen, often in the middle of typing or reading. So when we came across Chandra Padmanabhan's book Southern Flavours: The Best of South Indian Cuisine, we saw the chance of a home run. What better than to flip through its pages to make rasam and see if it tastes as good as it does back home?

Ingredients were bought, friends were informed, the relatively non-traditional, yet customary component of such cooking nights, beer, was bought too. Cooking rasam had never been such fun. Padmanabhan's book is fairly straightforward, with the Tamil names of ingredients and dishes, translated. The book offers recipes of the six mainstays of South Indian cooking, including rasam, sambar, and rice preparations (yes, there are several types of rasam, and rasam-vada isn't one of them), besides basic recipes of the masalas that go into and chutneys that accompany these dishes. The index also offers information on where the dish is from (South India, you can almost hear Padmanabhan say, isn't one state). 
Back home in Mumbai, the stove looked like a dal bomb had exploded and a prediliction for pepper corns ensured sips of water between slurps of rasam, but the dish was, as my aunt would stick her thumb up and say, "a good effort". It may not have inspired the same look it did on my mum's face in my memory, but it helped a first-time cook like me feel less scared of  South Indian cuisine. Rasam done. Next?

Southern Flavours The Best of South Indian Cuisine by Chandra Padmanabhan. Rs 599. Published by Westland

Tomato Rasam from Tamil Nadu
Serves: 4-6
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes

This delicious rasam is made with my mother's recipe. It is the South Indian version of the tomato soup. She normally made it on a rainy day or when we were under the weather. Truly, this tomato rasam is food for the soul!

Verum thakkali rasam


cup husked, split pigeon peas (tuvar/arhar dal)
5-6 medium-sized, ripe tomatoes, pureed
2 tsp rasam podi (page 15)
tsp asafoetida powder (hing)
1 tsp salt or to taste
2 tsp ghee
tsp mustard seeds
tsp cumin seeds (jeera)
1 dried red chilli, halved
tsp black peppercorns, powdered
1 sprig curry leaves
2 tbsp chopped coriander leaves

Wash dal and drain. Place in a pressure cooker with 1 cup water. Cook under pressure for 5 minutes. Open cooker when cool. Add additional water to make 1 cups of thin dal. Whisk well and set aside. Combine pureed tomatoes, rasam podi, asafoetida powder and salt in a pan. Mix well and simmer over low heat for 10-12 minutes.Add dal and bring to boil. Lower heat and simmer, till rasam froths up. Remove from heat. Heat ghee for tempering in another pan. Add remaining ingredients for tempering, in the order given. Fry over moderate heat, till mustard seeds splutter. Stir contents of pan into rasam. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve hot with plain rice.

This rasam can be served as an appetiser. Add a little extra water, adjust salt, strain and pour into mugs. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve hot.

Festive Curd Curry from Tamil Nadu
Serves: 4-6
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes

Pandigai moru kuzhambu


Spice paste
2 tsp oil
2 tsp husked, split black gram (urad dal)
tsp fenugreek seeds (methi)
4 dried red chillies
2 green chillies
cup grated fresh coconut
2 cups slightly sour curd
1 tsp salt or to taste
tsp turmeric powder
1 cups (250 gms) peeled and chopped (1" cubes) ash gourd (petha)
2 tsp oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
tsp asafoetida powder (hing)
1 dried red chilli, halved
1 sprig curry leaves

Heat oil for spice paste in a frying pan. Add dal, fenugreek seeds, red and green chillies. Fry over low heat, tossing gently, till dal turns golden and chillies are fragrant. Cool and mix in coconut. Grind to a smooth consistency, gradually adding cup water. Combine curd with salt, turmeric powder and spice paste. Whisk till well-blended and smooth. Set aside. Heat oil for tempering in pan. Add remaining ingredients for tempering, in the order given. Fry over moderate heat, till mustard seeds splutter. Mix in ash gourd and 1 cup water. Cover pan and simmer over low heat for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally, till gourd is tender. Stir in spiced curd. Heat through, stirring continuously to prevent curdling. Serve hot with plain rice.

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