Our guest writer Achala Srivatsa loves to cook and ponder the finer points of what we eat. This is her thoughtful take on rasam, with a tadka of flavourful musings.

The earliest memories I have of my childhood are of being sick with a sore throat and fever. Those days my food habits were, shall we say, not very refined in that I’d pretty much eat anything I was given, anything I found or otherwise came my way. A group of us would  pick tooth-jarringly sour, unripe guavas, knobbly and green as emeralds with seeds that were yet flecks in the rock hard flesh. This, we’d painstakingly place between the front gate and hinge so it split into two. Presumably we hugely enjoyed this gastronomic delicacy (along with whatever bacteria was jammed in that rusty gate) – I only remember the tears and the swollen and inflamed tonsils. Ergo, the antibiotics (and a pink liquid) and and the start of my story.

Here’s where the rasam or saaru comes in. Naturally, eating anything not mushy and soft was out of the question –  only “thillee saaru” would do – which is a vastly superior version of the normal saaru. Light, delicately tangy and not too spicy, steaming with a hing tadka, this would be mixed into over-cooked rice and a fat spoon of ghee which would be mixed into a soft, porridge like consistency by my mother. To this day, when I eat this I turn six again. And oh yes I do eat it .

Saaru is the only thing that unites Kannadigas (apart from the Kaveri issue and a tendency to say “How dare…”). The word derives from the word “saara” or essence and it is indeed the essence of Kannadiga-ness. A somewhat divine combination of  toor dal with some aromatic, some hot spices, the fragrance of curry leaves and coriander, and a final hit of hing. Every South Indian state has a version but the Udupi saaru is the Kannada ideal. It is prepared at weddings, on festive days and any special day.

Every household may have its own but we judge weddings, religious or cultural gatherings primarily by the rasam or saaru. “Were the cooks from Udupi” is what we want to know. And if not, why not. The meal pivots around the Udupi or “maduvemane saaru” – the flavour and aroma of which should lasso you into the first “pankti” or seating.

The criteria for judgment are stringent – does the first taste make you want to do cartwheels? Is the aroma and flavour deep enough to linger on your hands three hours after the meal? Does it have the perfect blend of heat, sourness and salt balanced by a hint of jaggery to round out all the flavours? Is the colour a rich dark browny red?

Already the exacting lunch crowd is beginning to twitter (no not that one), “Horrors, is the cumin too strong? I think they’ve overdone the coriander seeds!”, “Hmm a bit salty I think.”

When it’s perfect, there is no sound but that of a 100 people reverentially slurping up the stuff – is that the cook with the bucket of saaru you ask as you raise your hand to catch his attention.

When the sun blazes down in May, the regular rasam seems a tad too heavy and that’s when my mother would decide it was time for the lemon rasam. This is a precious liquid that is a distillation of the flavours of lemon, ginger, the sting of fresh hot green chillies and the heat of crushed black pepper… utterly gloriously full of mad flavour.

Religious festivals always call for “hoorna saaru” – which is saaru enriched with a concoction of lentils, jaggery and coconut – which gives it a bit of sweetness and a thicker consistency.

And then of course there’s the “pepper rasam” – with the lively heat of pepper and the tang of tamarind hitting the back of your throat and clearing  your sinuses in a way that Sudafed never does. There are other variations – the “mango rasam” and the “pineapple rasam”. They say Udupi cooks make over 200 types of rasam – including one made with milk.

Rasam truly is the chicken soup of South India – with magical miraculous healing properties, the ability to soothe and stimulate, every spoonful an immersion in the past as well as the present, every spoonful unlocking memories of a thousand rasam meals you’ve had and wrapping you cosily in nostalgia.

Here’s a recipe for Udupi saaru

It’s typically thicker and more robust than other saarus, and is always to be eaten with rice.

Making the powder

Roast separately until fragrant – I’m lazy and  sometimes roast all of it together, but the right thing to do is to roast them separately.

15 Byadgi chillies (long and wrinkly, deeply red but mellow. Kashmir chillies are a good substitute)
1 teaspoon and a half of black pepper
1 tablespoon of cumin
2 and a half tablespoons of coriander seeds
Half a teaspoon of methi seeds
A handful of fresh coriander and some curry leaves
Half a spoon of mustard

Heat a tiny amount of oil. Let the mustard splutter in it and add the chillies. Roast chillies and then each of the other spices. Throw on a handful of coriander and curry leaves at the end and roast. Grind… not too finely nor too coarsely. This stores very well.

Making the saaru

1. Cook about half a cup of toor dal (split pegeon peas) till not too mushy – the liquid and dal must stay separate.

2. Heat a spoonful of oil and add mustard seeds, wait for it to splutter, add a pinch of hing (asafoetida) and then half a cup of light tamarind juice. It should be tangy but not sour, of course, you can always add more if you like sour. At this stage you may also add a tomato if you wish, cut any way you like – but the original Udupi saaru has no tomato.

3. To this add 1 and a half to 2 spoons of the powder you made, a tiny chunk of jaggery, salt, half a teaspoon of turmeric powder, curry leaves and let this simmer well for a good 10 minutes, adding a little water if need be.

4. Once this has reduced a bit and smells fragrant, add the dal + the water in which it was cooked and let it all boil well till well blended; taste it and make sure the flavours are all balanced. The flavour should be a blend of cumin and coriander with the kick of chilli and hot, sour, salty tastes perfectly balanced and rounded off by the jaggery, but there must be no sweetness.

5. You don’t want it to be too thin or too thick. Once you switch the stove off and it sits for a while, there should be 2 distinct layers – a clear light layer (thillee) and a sedimentary layer at the bottom where the heavier dal settles (charata). Typically kids love the top layer which is light and fragrant but not too spicy and adults stir the pot and eat a thicker version.

6. Udupi cooks sometimes skip the tadka in the beginning and do a coconut oil tadka with mustard and hing at the very end.

7. Generally eaten with hot rice because it’s typically fairly thick and too spicy to drink.