Yesterday I had made some Garam Masala and the house was full of wonderful aromas. As I worked at my desk I became hungrier and hungrier. What to do? I needed something wonderfully spicy.
After peeking in the fridge to see what was left after a hectic week, the solution was a wonderful, spicy tomato rasam.
One of the easiest way to describe Rasam is that it is a very thin, sometimes watery, spiced dish where lentils are used for flavour but are not obvious. Rasam is often confused with Sambar. Sambar is a thicker dish based on lentils. Traditionally both dishes are spiced differently. You can read more about Rasam here.
In India, traditionally all of your meal, including deserts, are served together on the one plate – a tali or metal plate which might be divided into sections, or a banana leaf. Rasam may be served in a small metal cup along with the meal. Its purpose is to moisten the other curries and rice, as needed, or to consume as a soupy broth or spicy appetiser.
Spicy Tomato Rasam
See the recipe notes below for information on the ingredients. You might like to browse Common Indian Ingredients and Techniques.
A South Indian side dish
Can be used as a pre-dinner small appetising drink and spice hit
Can be served over rice
This makes a large amount, 5 – 6 cups. For smaller amounts, halve the recipe.
4 large ripe healthy tomatoes, chopped into fine cubes
4 cups water
0.5 stick cinnamon
8 – 10 black peppercorns
1 tspn cumin seeds
2 whole dried red chillies, or to taste
1 stalk curry leaves
1 – 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 marble sized ball of jaggery (palm sugar) or 1 tspn brown sugar
1 small strip tamarind
0.5 Tblspn sambar or rasam spice mix
sea salt to taste
1 tiny sprig mint leaves (for garnish, optional)
1 sprig coriander leaves (for garnish, optional)
In a pan, dry roast the peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon stick and 1 tspn cumin seeds until aromatic. Place in your mortar or spice grinder and grind to a powder.
Pinch the ends from the chillies, so they won’t explode in the heat.
Heat 1 tspn ghee in the pan and add the chillies and curry leaves. Roast a little and put aside.
Into a deep saucepan, place the tomatoes, the chillies and curry leaves, roasted spice powder, jaggery, and rasam or sambar spice mix. Mix it well and mash it together. Use a hand blender to obtain a pulp.
Strain the tamarind into the saucepan. Mash the solids in the strainer to use as much as the pulp as you can. Discard the remainder.
Add the water to the saucepan and bring to the boil.
Heat the remaining ghee in a small pan, add the mustard seeds, the remaining cumin and asafoetida, and allow the seeds to pop and splutter. Add the garlic and stir for a moment, and then transfer to the rasam.
Add salt if needed, and simmer for 2 – 3 minutes.
Serve with rice, or serve in a heat proof glass, topped with mint or coriander leaves.
The recipe relies on wonderful succulent tomatoes for taste success. If these are in short supply, use a tin of good Italian diced or whole tomatoes.
The rasam is great to make from the water left over from cooking dal or lentils. Lentils are a great flavouring agent in Indian cooking, so the water forms a beautiful stock. You can of course use water if you don’t happen to be cooking lentils at the same time.
If you are looking for curry leaves, any Indian grocery will have them fresh or dried and many supermarkets have them these days. If you can’t find them locally, don’t substitute bay leaves. Bay leaves have a completely different taste and are not interchangeable. Just leave them out.
There is a specific spice mix used for Rasam, called Rasam Powder or Rasam Masala. You can buy a ready mixed rasam powder from your local Indian or Asian shop, or you can make your own. Bought or home made Sambar Masala can be substituted.
Tamarind is a souring agent in Indian food. I don’t mean that it curdles the food as a souring agent might be used in Western cooking, but it provides the sour taste that is a wonderful underlying note to good, authentic Indian dishes. Indian food traditionally combines a number of tastes into each meal – sweet, sour, salty, pungent and astringent. In Southern parts of India, tamarind is used for the sour and contributes to the quintessential taste of rasam. Other regions might use lemon juice, mango powder (amchur) or even dried sour pomegranate seeds for souring agents in their dishes.
If you can’t obtain any tamarind, use the juice of half a small lemon or some amchur. It isn’t the same Sth Indian typical taste, but will be Ok. Hunt out some tamarind for next time. It is readily available these days.
Asafoetida is a powder used to enhance the taste of dishes, and is said to add the flavours of onions and garlic. It is a pungent powder but calms when cooked.