Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Rasam Chronicles

I am not a fan of rasam. I would like to rise against the tyranny of rasam. Go ahead, disown me. I am from Mysore, and though my family does have some Tamizh roots, the well-entrenched dislike of rasam is pinned (mostly) on my Tamizh friends. As soon as you speak of the thin soup and the idyllic town together, they will turn to you, their noses turned up, and say “So you put sugar in the rasam, right?” I don’t know why, but this infuriates me immensely. I mean I do feel superior in the knowledge that they have no clue what they are talking about, but still. 

First let me talk a little bit about the current state of affairs and chronicle in a detailed manner, my rasam preferences. It has to have tomatoes in it. Tomatoes can be eliminated if it has fried neem flowers in it. Third and most important, it must not have a green tinge to it (which comes from a preponderance of coriander powder and a distinct lack of chilli powder). I accept lemon rasam, with green chillies and tiny tomato pieces, if it packs a punch. Currently, I rarely partake of any of these variants, though one or the other is prepared at home every day.

Ok, so rasam went by another name in my childhood, I cannot ignore that, despite the fact that it will slot me. Saathamudu is what it was (to be) called. Childish tongues tripped over that big word and various bastardisations were evident in our family, including the rapid-fire uttered Saatund. Which sounds like an electronics manufacturer or something. In effect, when we said rasam, we conjured in our minds, the big bad city of Madras and the heaving temple towns of southern Tamilnadu, which was our (at least my) only exposure to our neighbouring state in those young Mysore days. It is saaru in Kannada and that was acceptable too. Eventually, when I moved abroad and had to cook for myself via Mallika Badrinath recipe books, I accepted rasam as rasam, and now I don’t much use my childhood word for it. Which is just as well, considering that I rarely consume it in adulthood.

Now I get to the sugar part. I don’t remember in my household, sugar being added to rasam, ever. An occasional piece of jaggery, maybe. My mom was not much into cooking for several years due to various reasons, so when she finally got the full kitchen duties on to her plate when I was 10 or 12 years old, she experimented a lot. Sometimes those experiments resulted in events like too-spicy things, which she then tried to “fix” via jaggery. Mom is a big one for this fixing, and is quite adept at it. I am too. One of my #covidlockdown skills has been to repurpose the morning’s kootu into a lip-smacking dal for the night’s chapati. I pride myself in the complexity of flavours in Mysorean food, particularly mine. So when someone tries to pour disdain with this sugar comment, it riles me up. I know that sugar, in many instances, helps bring out one or the other flavour, but yes it irritates me because it is a trivialisation. And you do NOT get “Mysore Rasam” by adding sugar to the rasam that’s currently boiling on your stove.

It is likely that, as I am a vegetarian, I have not had the opportunity to taste the full scale or variety in Tamizh food. As I have anyway slotted myself above, I bravely add this comment as well. Usually, I am the sole representative in a room full of Madrasis (in the true sense of the word, people from Madras, born and brought up, went to school here, spent a few years away maybe, at most, but back here again, talking about Drive-Through Woodlands and its halcyon days), and I struggle. How do I convey to them my deep dark feelings about how their food pales in comparison to mine? It literally does. For e.g. the yellow-tinged tamarind rice here vs. the fiery brown one my aunts or mom (or heck! ME!) make. Tamizh food should also come with the warning “no copra has been harmed in the making of this food” – how do I convey to this room what they are missing by not including this awesome thing? Do they even know what copra is? (Hint: It is not a snake)

So let me bottom line it here. Those paroxysms of joy you are feeling thinking about rasam, whether it is soup or not, I don’t indulge in them. And nor will you, if you know that world over people, married to Tamizh Rasam, are settling for an imitation. The real rasam powder is brownish red, yes, many red chillies are incorporated, the coriander is but a small subdued presence, bowing to the superior flavours of the other things in it. Dal, mashed, a handful, is invariable. Pieces of tomato float on top. The jeera is tadka-d in ghee and floats alongside. Fresh coriander leaves are abundantly sprayed. You can drink it, it will unclog the sinuses, but you better not, mix it with hot rice, for heaven’s sake.

(I don't believe a word of what I read here.