The rasam that heals
‘Mother’s rasam had none of the usual ingredients and looked yellow. It tasted different too. The fever was soon gone but not the shock I felt on learning its secret ingredient’
Memories of childhood are intrinsically linked with food for most of us. Just a whiff or a mere mention of a favourite dish can transport us to a bygone place and time. One such dish that holds sway over me is the humble yet potent rasam.
The soup-like broth with the tanginess of tamarind, tartness of tomato, sweetness of jaggery and wholesomeness of dal, along with the spice hit from homemade rasam powder, is always a winner. Though there are variations aplenty — with or without garlic, with lemon, and so on — my favourite has always been my mother’s heady, red-hued broth. So, imagine my surprise when, one day, I was offered rasam like I had never known it before — without tomato, tamarind or even rasam powder, and it looked yellow.
I still remember that day vividly. I must have been around 10 years old, and was feeling a bit under the weather. My mother brought me the yellow concoction as a home remedy. I was flustered and took a tentative sip. While it tasted nothing like the usual rasam, I took an instant liking to it. I was, however, quite taken aback to learn that one of its ingredients was milk!
Mother explained that this rasam was called ‘menasina saaru’, and that it was something she had seen her mother and grandmother make several times. It was extolled for its medicinal benefits and was much sought after whenever family members suffered from a fever, cough or cold. Since it contains pepper, known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, menasina saaru calms the body, my mother said. And sure enough, my fever quickly subsided that day, I recall.
As life moved on and over-the-counter drugs took the place of everyday home cures, we forgot about menasina saaru. However, when my sister had her first child, it made an appearance again. It is excellent for postnatal mothers, said my mother, helping to keep the body warm. It was also a great way to increase immunity, she said, with the benefits being passed on from the breastfeeding mother to her newborn.
Photo: Getty Images/ iStock
But it was not until last year, when COVID-19 hit and we were all looking for traditional ways to build immunity, that I truly came to appreciate menasina saaru. While it has many ingredients that are great for holistic wellness, what drew me to the dish was its simplicity and lack of fuss — no fancy ingredients that’ll make you run to your supermarket (or your smartphone). After all, now was the time to go back to the basics.
And so, I learnt the recipe from my mother and happily made it from scratch. The fact that it was well-received by all at home was an added bonus. The Indian kitchen has so many secrets waiting to be rediscovered that I feel like I have only begun scratching at the surface. More importantly, my experience reiterates that mother, and grandmother, are always right.
1 tbsp black peppercorn
2 tbsp urad dal
2 tbsp rice
4 tbsp dried coconut (copra)
2-3 cups water
1 tsp turmeric powder
Salt, to taste
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp ghee
1 tsp mustard seed
1 tsp jeera/ cumin seeds
1/2 tsp asafoetida
1 sprig curry leaf
1) On a medium flame, dry roast urad dal, black peppercorn, rice and copra separately until lightly browned. Cool and grind together coarsely.
2) Boil 2-3 cups of water (depending on how thick or thin you like your rasam) in a pot or saucepan. Add the ground mix, turmeric and salt and mix well. Once it boils, turn off the gas and add milk.
3) For the tempering, heat ghee, add mustard and cumin seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves. Let splutter and pour over the rasam. Serve as a drink or with rice.
The freelance writer and photographer from Bengaluru seeks offbeat experiences through travel.