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Rasam Tales: From Madurai to Seinfeld

Explore the vibrant history and global journey of this simple yet fiery South Indian soup-like dish, from ancient legends to earning the ‘immunity booster’ spotlight in the US

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01 Feb '24
6 min read


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When I was finishing one of my first lunches at a non-descript food joint in Chennai with buttermilk my friend pointed out that I hadn't touched my rasam. 

“But don’t you end your meals with buttermilk? What is this tomato soup look like? Why in the end?” The 21-year-old ignorant Bengali in me was perplexed, as traditionally, soup is served as an appetiser.

No South Indian meal is complete without rasam. It ensures good digestion. Now have it,” he was insistent. 

I looked at the broth with a questionable glance before taking a huge gulp. 

It almost felt like tamarind, pepper, jeera, tomato and jaggery gave each other a tight embrace. All the right spots were hit – the tanginess of tamarind, the hotness of pepper, the tartness of tomato, the sweetness of jaggery, and the earthiness of the cumin and coriander. 

This was in 2010. I am a changed human now. I ask for more rasam if the meal gets too heavy. 

The love for the broth made me curious about its history. So this steaming elixir of tangy tamarind, fiery pepper, and fragrant spice, is a story told in slurps and sighs of contentment. Its roots trace back to ancient legends, traverse royal kitchens, and today, tantalise taste buds across the globe. 

How did the term rasam come about? It finds its origins in the Tamil word 'irasam' and the Sanskrit word 'rasa,' both encapsulating the essence or extract. Thought to trace back to the 16th century in Madurai, Rasam's roots are associated with the Sourashtra community, who colloquially refer to it as 'Pulichaar,' meaning tart or tamarind, reflecting the dish's signature tangy note. This was after the Vijayanagar empire fell and the Saurashtra established their rule. They prepared a broth-like soup with tamarind pulp (rasam’s main ingredient) and pepper.

 As time flew by, rasam embraced regional variations, diverse ingredients and subsequently names across South India. While it's recognized as rasam in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, it goes by saaru in Karnataka, chaaru in Andhra Pradesh, and saar in Maharashtra. 

That explains the 220 varieties of rasam, each with distinctive ingredients and flavours. But we will get to that later. 

Legends Whispered in Spice:

According to the legend, Rasam has its roots traced back to the Pandiyan period in Madurai. The tale unfolds in the 14th century when the king's son fell ill and refused to consume any food. In a bid to entice the prince's appetite, a proclamation was made that a bag of gold coins would be rewarded to the cook who could prepare a dish the prince would eat. Karunas, a modest Brahmin priest, took up the challenge. He experimented with locally available ingredients and seasonal vegetables, including lemon, curry leaves, gooseberries, pineapple, black pepper, salt, and turmeric, crafting a flavorful concoction boiled in water.

The outcome was not only a delicious dish but also a swift recovery for the prince, who declared the soup a state favourite. Thus the rasam was born and its reputation as a curative. This also marked the inclusion of gooseberry and pineapple rasam in royal kitchens, etching its place in Indian history.

In his book Indian Food – A Historical Companion, the late food historian KT Achaya highlighted an early account of rasam by Niccolao Manucci, a Venetian resident who visited India in 1654 AD and spent six decades practising as a doctor. Describing the South Indian meal, Manucci noted that “They sup a concoction which is somewhat water boiled with pepper.”

Another intriguing narrative attributes the genesis of rasam to a Brahmin named Brihadeeswara Sarma, who found himself wandering in China. Faced with the challenge of sourcing non-meat dishes, he tapped into his supply of dried tamarind and various spices, concocting a thin soup. The soup caught the attention of the locals who were beyond ecstatic after tasting it. Soon the word reached the Chinese emperor who commanded him to concoct this dish which his natives spoke highly of. Within the imperial kitchen, the Brahmin conducted a ritual purification, reciting verses from ancient Sanskrit. In no time, the delightful aromas permeated the dim chambers, prompting the Emperor to declare that nothing in his expansive empire could rival such heavenly fragrance. 

He soon embraced vegetarianism but Sarma, now christened Pu Li So Mei, informed the emperor that his empire didn't grow tamarind trees, whose fruit was a critical ingredient to rasam. Caravans were sent to bring back the vital fruit and its seeds from the southern mountain passes. In the interim, Pu Li So Mei (formerly Brihadeeswara Sarma) suggested using tomato juice, laying the foundation for tomato rasam.   

Tomato rasam

While these stories lack textual validation, it's highly likely that the earliest rasam versions employed tamarind as a base, complemented by the heat of black pepper. The arrival of tomatoes in India happened in the 16th century through the Portuguese, becoming a common cultivation only in later periods.

Through the British era and Seinfeld:

Rasam's journey didn't stop at the borders of South India. Its vibrant flavours crossed oceans, finding admirers in countries far away. KT Achaya mentioned in his other book, A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, that the British Colonials anglicised this pungent soup into mulligatawny, mulliga for pepper and tawny for water. 

Mulligatawny, an anglicised version of rasam

This broth further found a mention in a famous comedy sketch Dinner for One and the iconic pop culture references like the Seinfeld famous episode The Soup Nazi. Here Elaine asks Kramer if he needs anything. Kramer responds that a good bowl of Mulligatawny Soup from the Soup Nazi would hit the spot. Elaine asks what Mulligatawny Soup is, and Kramer answers, “It’s an Indian Soup, simmered to perfection by one of the great soup artisans of the modern era.” He gets it. 

A Covid cure to culinary craze in the US

If Seinfeld briefly acquainted the West with the peppery broth the pandemic made the US witness its benefits. All thanks to award-winning chef Arun Rajadurai from Princeton, who offered it as a complimentary dish to COVID patients in three hospitals, aiming to boost immunity with key ingredients like turmeric, ginger, and garlic. 

Chef Arun Rajadurai

Such was the popularity that it became a bestseller at the chef’s restaurant Anjappar Princeton, with 500-600 cups of this ‘immunity-boosting soup’ being sold daily. 

 It was even introduced in the restaurant’s New York, New Jersey and Canada branches.

Today, rasam is a global ambassador of South Indian cuisine. Its versatility knows no bounds, adapting to local palates while retaining its essence. From vegetarian to tribal and non-vegetarian versions featuring crabseafoodmuttonchicken and even rent ants, rasam continues to evolve, showcasing its ability to cater to diverse preferences. 

There is a story told in every slurp and every spoonful, adding a new chapter to the legacy of this magical South Indian broth.

 

Category : Food and Cooking


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Written by Madhuwanti Saha

Writer, Journalist , Photographer