Thin rasam, according to Neerja

Updated: Jul 07, 2020, 07:37 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

Firstly you'd have to call her thin rasams charus, because this is Andhra Pradesh. But after that, all roads lead to heaven.

Neerja Tata and the kattu charu, pepper charu and pappu charu. Pic/C Y Gopinath
Neerja Tata and the kattu charu, pepper charu and pappu charu. Pic/C Y Gopinath

C Y GopinathIt's all about pattern recognition. For instance, you can tell the difference between a pizza and an uthappam without spraining your brain. One is based on dough, the other has batter. One is baked, the other is fried.

There's wonderful melted cheese on one, but if the other has cheese, it's a fake. There's stuff under the cheese in one, there's chopped onions on the other.

Once you understand the pattern, you're on firm ground. You know that only someone living in Khargar Node would eat an uthappam and pay for a pizza without feeling like a yap.

But take the wonderful south Indian concoction called rasam and suddenly you will be in a quagmire where rules collapse unpredictably and identities change casually. Even if you know where rasam begins, you'd have to be a genius to know where it ends.

Rasam, for those new to the concept, means essence. Some say its origin dates back to 16th century Madurai, but you know, who knows? Rasam scholars agree on just one thing — it is a thin soup, and it was originally made from the extract of tamarind and/or tomato.

Or so I believed for years. The thing is, there's simply no telling with rasam. You may suddenly stumble, in a later paragraph, on a rasam that has not a jot of tamarind but is still an honoured member of the family. Or one that has no dal and yet has not been blacklisted. Or, scandal of scandals, one that has no rasam powder but also no identity crisis.

Well, maybe one identity crisis: it's only known as a rasam in Tamil Nadu. In Karnataka, you'd have to ask for a saaru. Step into Andhra Pradesh and that would be a charu. In Kerala, its personality changes thanks to roasted spices, garlic and coconut oil, but wonder of wonders, its name remains rasam.

I myself, in my time on this planet as a visiting alien, have counted the following rasams — thakkali (tomato) rasam, inji (ginger) rasam, Mysore rasam, milagu (black pepper) rasam, gottu (cumin) rasam, paruppu (tuvar dal) rasam, garlic rasam, mango rasam, lemon rasam and pineapple rasam. An exquisite one served at weddings is aromatic with rosewater.

But irrespective of their inner chemistry, rasams share a trait — no soup on earth is thinner, subtler, more delicate or more fragrant. When you try it, be prepared for failure and thick, cloudy results. The connoisseur's rasam should be a supremely delicate distillate. I haven't got it right in 68 years so don't expect to crack it in a day.

Which brings me to Neerja Tata, Bangkok artist, craftswoman, mother and definitely cook. I have known for a while that when she turns her attention to a thing, anything, she channels either Salvador Dali, Julia Child, or more likely, her own grandmother. I remembered her most heavenly of rasams from a decade earlier. After innumerable failed fumbles at my own thin rasam, I bent the knee before her. She agreed to make three rasams.

"You can't call it a rasam, though," she said. "Say charu."

"Cha-ru," I said.

The many ingredients for the day's rasams were arrayed by noon — kattu charu, pepper charu and pappu charu. (The last one, by the way, is not inspired by some Punjabi farmhand called Pappu, but is code for tuvar dal, pappu to Andhraites.)

The most unique of the three and the clear winner that Friday was the kattu charu, cooked in water in which chana dal has been boiled. It was the only one that used a dash of rasam powder, whose recipe I am sharing lest you buy some heavy-handed wannabe powder made by Mahashian di Hatti in Ajmal Khan Road.

To make Neerja's rasam powder, dry roast till golden brown 1/8 cups of chana dal, toor dal and coriander seeds, with about 6 dried red chillies, about 10 peppercorns, half a teaspoon of cumin seeds, a smidgeon methi seeds and a cup of curry leaves. Coarsely powder them after they have cooled.

Making the kattu charu.

Boil a cup of chana dal in 3 cups of water, strain and reserve the water.

Heat some oil, and drop half teaspoons of black mustard and cumin seeds, plus a slit green chilly and curry leaves. Add one chopped tomato, let it soften, and add salt and two tablespoons of tamarind paste. Add the chana water and 2 tablespoons of rasam powder plus a small lump of jaggery. Boil, garnish with coriander leaves, and voila — Neerja's kattu charu.

To serve, dribble hot ghee on to hot rice and then the thin, clear essence of the rasam. Eat with your hands, eyes closed, while your mother tells you tales from the Panchatantra.

PS: If you want the other two rasam recipes, you'll have email me. Say please, please.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at
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