Monthly Archives: February 2014

The warm comfort of a bowl of rasam


Some days, it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed.

I wake up, staring at the cold dark ceiling, listening to the howling wind that is whipping by outside making the windows whistle. It’s loud enough that it wakes me fifteen minutes before the alarm goes off; not enough time to go back to sleep, so I drag my sorry butt downstairs.

I look out the window and am greeted with an apocalyptic nightmare of white, wind, and Winnipeg.

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I sigh a heavy sigh, thinking about my commute into work and wondering why there are people living here. It takes a few seconds for me to remember that today is a rare day off, and I don’t need to brave the weather, so I dance a little dance and prepare to make some coffee and maybe a little breakfast. It takes another few seconds for me to remember that I’m out of coffee… and breakfast… and food, so I’ll have to go out anyway.

By this time in February, we are all sick of the five months of winter we have had, and it isn’t because of the mind numbing cold or the thirty foot monoliths of snow and ice everywhere. It’s the preparation that goes into surviving a prairie winter. All of the shovelling of walks and driveways and roofs, the sanding and salting of roads and sidewalks, the constant beep beep beep beep beep of snow-plows at 3 am, and the 290 kilos of extra clothing that needs to be worn, even for the shortest trip into the wastelands of Winnipeg.

I have committed to the fact that a trip to the grocery store is in order, so I look around to see if there is anything else I need, because if I forget to get something I’m not going back out there! Toilet paper be damned!

I then start my preparations for my space walk into the cold featureless void. Long underwear, fleece lined jeans, socks under another set of socks under some wool socks, two shirts under a turtleneck under a sweater under a sweat shirt under a hoodie under a jacket under a parka, gloves under mitts, scarf wrapped around face 35 times, hat under toque under hoodie under parka hood, and shoes under boots under galoshes. It takes about 45 minutes to get dressed and I look like the Michelin Man…

I trudge the block and a half to my local Safeway grocery store. The walk takes me 5 minutes through the ferocious ice pellet wind that feels like a sand blasting on my eyelids; the only exposed skin.

When I arrive at the Safeway I get two shopping carts. Not because I’m planning to buy a massive load of groceries, but because I’m now overheating and I need someplace to put my parka, scarf, gloves, mitts, jacket, hoodie, sweater, toque, hat, and long underwear. I’m fifty pounds lighter and there is still a little room in the shopping carts for the groceries I need… most of which they are out of because the highway into the city is shut down and the trucks couldn’t make their deliveries…

I shop and I pay. The clerk asks if I need any help out and I ask if they have invented teleporters yet so me and my groceries wouldn’t have to venture outside again. She replies that they have invented them, but the technology won’t work in Manitoba; it’s too cold for the pattern buffers. She then hands me a coupon for a nickel off of suntan lotion and I head home.

When I get back home and disrobe for half an hour, put away my shopping, and write an email to some random scientists pleading for them to fix the freezing pattern buffer problems, I gaze out the window and dream of warmer places.

I need comfort food. And not just any comfort food… I need RASAM!

Rasam is a spicy and tart tamarind soup from the southern parts of India, especially Tamil Nadu. I was first introduced to rasam while at the Indian Pavilion at Folklorama in 2009 and wasn’t overly impressed. I tended to lean towards a more savoury Indian soup like sambar in those days, and when I was in India I only had rasam once and it was in a northern restaurant in Rishikesh and not in the south. There are many varieties of rasam, but they all have tamarind in common. Most of the packaged rasam mixes found in stores are of a tomato variety, and they are ok, but this soup really needs to be made from scratch if you want to experience the offsetting tastes of spice, sweet, and tart. When it’s balanced just right, it is a delightful meal that will warm you up and put a smile on your face, even if the world is a white wall of wind and snow outside your window.

There are three steps to making rasam, just like there is with sambar, and the first one is making the rasam powder. You can buy premixed rasam powder at most Asian grocery stores, and it can save you a step, but the pre mixed powders can be full of chemicals and loaded with sodium. Careful not to mix up rasam powder with rasam soup mix, they are two very different things. If you have a spice grinder, making your own rasam powder is really easy.

A few things about tamarind. Trying to get raw tamarind pods in Winnipeg can be difficult, but not impossible. If you want to use raw pods, they need to be broken open to get to the edible fruit part inside.

tamarind

Once opened, cook the fruit in a pan on medium heat with some water for about 20 minutes, then mash it up and push it through a strainer to get a pulpy paste. You can also buy tamarind already in a paste or a concentrated tamarind product that comes in a black oily paste. It’s just pure tamarind paste with most of the water removed, and it’s what I like to use because it’s so easy.

Tamarind-Concentrate

This recipe looks arduous, but it’s really quite simple and worth the effort.

JBJ’s Tomato Rasam inspired by the White Wailing Winds of Winnipeg

For rasam powder:

If you don’t have a spice mill or grinder and are using a packaged rasam powder, skip this step.

1 cup coriander seeds (Yes you read that right)
3 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1½ teaspoons mustard seeds
½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon asafoetida
2 tablespoons red chili powder or to taste (This is an indian chili powder and not the western stuff. Cayenne is a good substitute.)
2 tablespoons curry leaves

Dry roast all the seeds, the peppercorns, and curry leaves separately in a fry pan on low.

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Mix together in a bowl with the turmeric, asafoetida, and red chili powder.
Grind together in a spice mill or coffee grinder into a fine powder.

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Store in an airtight jar for up to a year. This recipe makes enough powder for 4 batches of rasam

For the rasam:

1 cup toor dal (split pigeon peas)
11 cups water
8 medium sized tomatoes, rough chopped
5 tablespoons of the above rasam powder (or a store-bought rasam powder).
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro (or 1/4 cup of dried)
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 teaspoons tamarind concentrate or 4 teaspoons of tamarind paste
1 teaspoon sugar
Wash toor dal, and boil in 3 cups of water for 1 1/2 hours until creamy and soft, adding more water if it boils down too much. Mash or mix into a paste (I used my immersion blender for this)

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In a large stock pot or dutch oven, add 8 cups of water with chopped tomatoes, rasam powder, cilantro, salt, and turmeric. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and then cook for 5 minutes.
Add cooked dal, tamarind paste, and sugar. Continue to simmer until tomatoes are completely soft and pulpy, about 20 minutes.

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While rasam is cooking, prepare for the next step which is the tadka or tempering.

For tadka/popu/tempering:

2 tablespoon ghee (olive oil could be substituted)
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
4 dry red chilis (broken into pieces)
1/8 tsp asafoetida powder
6 curry leaves

Heat ghee in a small pan until melted and add mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and red chilis. Fry for 30 seconds, or until the seeds start to splutter.

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Add asafoetida and curry leaves and fry for a few seconds more, then VERY CAREFULLY add the tadka to the rasam.
Serve by itself or over rice.
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I think I’ll have a big bowl of this while watching some Bollywood and just ignore everything that is outside my window… until I realise that I forgot to pick up toilet paper again… DAMMIT!

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