Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rediscovering Rasam

College cafeteria food is never much to write home about. On the contrary, it is everything to whine about when calling home. It was the same when the Boy and I went to college. There was a roster of menu items that was rotated through the week - each a spectacularly dull version of the real thing. A liberal dousing with ketchup, huge bottles of which were always available, would make the food on the plate somewhat palatable and keep the eater reasonably sane. If the daal was bland you added a squirt of Contadina. If the vegetables were dry you dipped them in Contadina. Everything tasted better with Contadina.

Yet, in this insipid, tasteless world one dish stood out because it was so stupendously bad; one dish that outshone every other stunning failure on that roster – rasam. And to exacerbate its stupendous badness, someone, somewhere had decided that rasam would be on the menu every single day. Now rasam is a wonderful soupy dish in the real world. But when this quintessentially south Indian dish comes to you via north Indian cooks who would rather make kaali dal, it has a tendency to turn into tepid, fermented tap water.

A bunch of years flew by and the watery rasam of our college nightmares was forgotten. So much so, that when I was handed a packet of rasam powder by a friend who was leaving town, it did not dredge up the dreadful rasam memories from my college years.Instead I was taken back to an much earlier time and place - the time when I was eight years old and lived next door to the K family. Since Mr. and Mrs. K’s children were all grown up my sister and I were doted upon whenever we went over - something we did quite often. We spent many an afternoon with Mrs. K, nibbling on murrukus and listening to her recount her childhood while the massive stone grinder rhythmically crushed soaked rice and lentils into idli/dosa batter in the background. And since we frequently overstayed our visit, we never went home without being fed a full meal. Whether it was idlis with crab curry or idiyapam with grated coconut and sugar, a meal at the K’s always started with rasam. Now Mrs. K was a great cook and I am sure she made all sorts of different rasams but after all these intervening years I realized that all of them had coalesced into one overwhelmingly sinus unclogging, tear inducing, spicy, steamy taste memory.So there I was with a packet of commercial rasam powder in my kitchen, remembering Mrs. K’s kitchen and all its myriad sounds and smells. I am sure she would have scoffed at using a premade spice mix but if I had to have rasam right away, grinding my own rasam powder would have to wait for another day. Into the pressure cooker went a handful of toor dal, some sad, winter tomatoes and one onion with a generous amount of the rasam powder. What came out looked like this.

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It was soupy, not too bad for a first attempt. It cleared the sinuses and was way better than the college cafeteria version, but certainly no match for Mrs. K's. Oh! well I have a whole year of soups ahead of me so I am pretty sure I will revisit rasam at another time.

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