Simmer Down: Milagu Rasam Is the Immunity Booster You Need

Pepper, cumin, tomatoes, and tamarind are enough for this potent brew.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Despite it being a weekend, we were working. We had a deadline to meet. Those were the years when I had donned the hat of a software engineer, and my life revolved around deadlines and deliverables. It was past lunchtime, and the team decided to place an order for takeout. I was in Pune, a city 150 km away from Mumbai in India. While others were busy looking at the menu, my colleague Hari Sundaresan native to Tamilnadu, a state in Southern India, gave a forlorn look. " I want to eat my mother's rasam sadam [rasam rice]," he said. 

As a South Indian, I could relate to what he desired: comfort. Piping hot over-cooked rice, mashed with one's fingers and enveloped with a ladle of rasam is a hug on a plate. Hot and puckering, it is a staple in most South Indian lunches. Often kitchens are engulfed in the heady aroma of its tempering and spice mix. All that this minimalistic broth-like consistency dish requires is a tomato or tamarind extract as an acidifier and a medley of spices. While it is called rasam in Kerala and Tamilnadu, it goes by the name chaaru in Andhra Pradesh and saaru in Karnataka. It was called milagu thannir (pepper water) due to its essential ingredient, the highly prized pepper, which brought the Europeans to Indian soil. The late food historian KT Achaya writes in his book, Indian Food: A Historical Companion about Niccolao Manucci, a young Italian who visited India in 1654 and spent six decades practicing as a doctor. In his writings, Manucci refers to a brew that could have been rasam. "They sup a concoction which is somewhat water boiled with pepper."

As per Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of medicine, consuming all the six fundamental tastes in every meal is mandatory. The no-frills rasam lends a shot of sourness to the palate. Rustic yet appetizing, rasam plays multiple roles in a meal: a palate cleanser, digestive, and an appetizer. It is a perfect transition when you have relished sambar rice and are yet to finish the meal by slurping thayir sadam or curd rice. Adapted to suit the Britishers' taste buds during the colonial era, meat and meat stock transformed the rasam into the Mulligatawny soup

"Mooligai Rasam is an interesting variety of Rasam made with herbs local to the region - like holy basil, Mexican mint, or lime leaves - commonly grown in backyards," says Janani Lakshminarayan, a writer, raconteur, and an avid cook. When under the weather with cold, fever, or stomachache, rasam is light on the stomach and acts as a perfect antidote. The soup-like thin potion seasoned with pepper, black mustard, and cumin has recently garnered attention as an immunity booster during the pandemic. Indian Chef Arun Rajadurai started serving rasam as an immunity booster soup to COVID patients in three hospitals in the USA. As per reports, the peppery broth went viral, daily selling about 500 cups.

Pineapple, gooseberry, raw mango, kokum - dried Garcinia Indica plant, and lemon are other souring agents used to prepare this versatile brew. Based on the season and availability of regional ingredients, neem tree blossoms and lentils boost rasam's potent flavors. In Chettinad, a region in Tamilnadu, the frugal dish attains prominence with the inclusion of crab for that hot and spicy nandu rasam. Every house has its unique rasam recipe. "We prepare Rasam every day in our household," says Janani. "Despite that, there are hardly any repetitions for at least two months. Varying the type and proportion of the ingredients according to the season and the availability yields many variations in taste, flavor, and strength of the Rasam." Such are the infinite varieties of Rasam. 

Milagu Rasam or Pepper Rasam

Makes: 6 to 8 servings
Cook time: 5 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 2 teaspoons pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 garlic pods
  • 2 ripened tomatoes
  • A gooseberry size ball of tamarind
  • 2 and 1/2 cups of water
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil, preferably sesame oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon mustard
  • 1/8 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • A pinch of asafoetida
  •  a sprig of curry leaves
  • 1/8 teaspoon asafoetida
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 whole dried red chili
  • Salt to taste
  • A handful of coriander leaves or cilantro
  • Steamed rice
  • Pickle
  • Papadum

Directions:

1. In a mortar and pestle, grind pepper and cumin into a coarse powder.

2. Roughly crush the garlic pods.

3. Chop the tomatoes and mash them with your fingers so that they turn mushy. (You can also blend in a mixer, but it is advisable to use your fingers.)

4. In a cup of hot water, soak tamarind for five to ten minutes.

5. Squeeze the pulp for that dark tamarind extract.

6. Discard the fibers, membranes, and seeds, if any.

7. Pour oil into a pot.

8. When warm, throw in the mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds.

9. As they crackle, add the curry leaves, asafoetida, and turmeric powder.

10. Break the chili into two halves and toss it into the pot.

11. Tip in the mashed tomatoes and let it cook till it softens.

12. Pour the tamarind extract and one and a half cups of water into the pot.

13. Bolster the brew with the cumin and pepper spice mix.

14. Let it come to a simmer. When it starts to froth and bubble, take it off the gas. Do not allow it to come to a roaring boil. 

15. Add salt.

16. Tear the coriander leaves with your fingers and garnish the Milagu Rasam.

Serve immediately with steaming hot rice, pickle, and papadum. Alternatively, you can also enjoy this heavenly potion as a soup.

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Rathina Sankari is a Thrillist contributor.