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An ode to the sour and tangy bowl of Rasam

A bowl of rasam awaits me everytime I visit my mother. The smell of roasted spices, the kadi pata tadka, and tamarind pulp in the air is a testament to my mother's love simmering away in a pot.
Ode to Rasam

“Can you make rasam for dinner tonight?”— is a recurring question to my mother on my train rides back home. This humble bowl of arhar dal, tomato and tempered spices has been my comfort meal for years now. Give me a ladleful of this atop a mound of steamed rice with kosambari and I will choose to eat it regardless of the hour. My desire for this ‘warm hug in a bowl’ has only heightened in the last three years when I moved out from my family home. I was 18 when I first moved away for college and every time I felt homesick it was sambar‘s cousin, rasam that I craved.

My mother's rasam and rice

My mother’s rasam with kosambari Photo: Samiksha

A bowl of rasam awaits me each time I go see my mother. The smell of roasted spices, the kadi pata tadka, and tamarind pulp in the air are all testaments of my mother’s love simmering away in a pot. Any time I have asked her to make rasam over the years, she questions “bore ni hote, kya?” (aren’t you bored of it?) and yet she receives the same text message in the week leading up to my visit. My mom doesn’t enjoy rasam half as much as I do, but some dishes, like this humble bowl, perhaps come with the realisation that there are some dishes you cook to share with others.

While I’ve tried every variant of rasam available in Delhi, the realisation that food is simply so much more than a composition of ingredients is not lost on me. It is that taste of rasam from home that I seek, perhaps it extends beyond to memories of loved ones and emotions. These aspects give food an added flavour, one that can’t be recreated by merely knowing the ingredients. 

Rasam in Delhi

Rasam in a restaurant (Photo:Samiksha)

In 2004, columnist and cookbook author Nigella Dawson wrote for The New York Times, “Quite often you cook something the way your mother did before you.” Discussing an allegory that has since been dubbed the Pot Roast Principle—where a cook trims the ends off a roast because that’s the way their mother used to do who followed what their mother did (the crux and punchline being that the grandmother just did it because the pot they had was smaller), Lawson highlights how children of cooks often grapple with the desire to respect tradition while also wanting to carefully tinker away from it. 

All my life, I assumed that I knew how my mother cooked because I had casually watched her while talking to her in the kitchen. But there were so many details I missed, like how, when making it, she drained the tamarind pulp right at the start of the process because that’s what her mother did. On the other hand, I resort to store-bought tamarind pulp that’s easily available on Swiggy.

My quest to recreate my mother’s rasam has resulted in countless hours in the kitchen (yes, I am aware it is too simple a dish to be spending hours trying to recreate). Unable to achieve that same taste, I have had to rely on my mother’s rasam powder (unable to achieve what I desired). It is an easy hack, in two spoonfulls, suddenly I’m back at the kitchen table at my childhood home in Chandigarh. Everytime I’m leaving to go back to Delhi where I now live, my mother carefully wraps up the rasam powder in a plastic container with layers of tape on it (my partner jokes that my family could as well be in the smuggling business with how hard it is to open these packages).

Recreation of rasam recipe

My take on my mother’s rasam recipe Photo: Samiksha

Back in my apartment, I now frequently make rasam. Whether I’m starting to show symptoms of flu, have a bad day or simply crave the warm tanginess. I sprinkle in some kadi patta chutney powder that my mother always manages to sneak in, despite my protests of not having space. 

I pick up the phone and call her, detailing my ordeal of chopping the vegetables and not knowing how many whistles on the cooker are enough. She laughs and says, “It’s so easy to make, I’ve even given you the powder, just add it in water and tomato.” 

It’s been another month, I’m on a train to Chandigarh, her phone pings—“Can you make rasam for dinner tonight?”

‘An Ode To’ is a monthly feature…no, love letter, to a cuisine, dish, drink, ingredient or maker that impacted the writer in big ways and small.