Tag Archives: Indian Food

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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)

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.


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.


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.


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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The essentials of Sambar

I don’t know about the rest of the country, but Winnipeg seems to have an abundance of Indian restaurants these days. Every time I stop into a strip mall or a food court, there is a new establishment offering curries and samosas with a chai to wash it down. Just the other day I actually heard someone say “Indian food is the new sushi”.

I applaud this new trend of gastronomical choice, even though some of the food court offerings are less than appetizing (Dude, you don’t use pie crust dough to make a samosa!).

The only problem I have with this influx of curry is that the offerings in most of these restaurants tend to be of a limited Indian cuisine. Vegetable korma, naan, channa masala, palak paneer, samosa, biryani, dum aloo, vindaloo, and murgh makhani (butter chicken) are plentiful and very easy to find in these restaurants. But some of the staples found in India, especially in the south of India, are much harder, if not impossible to find here. Dosa, vada, chapati, idilies, rasam, poriyal, and kurd are very rare items to find on these menus.

One of my favourite food items from India that is really hard to find here, is sambar.

Sambar (sometimes called kuzhambu or sambhar) is a spicy vegetable stew made with a broth of tamarind and toor dal (split and hulled pigeon peas). My first encounter with it was in Panauti Nepal at the Ananda Cafe and Guesthouse. The amazing cook there, Moona, made a simple supper every night of rice, papadum, vegetables, a glass of kurd, and a bowl of what I later found out was sambar.

I remember looking forward to that meal every night when the sun went down and the cold Himalayan air dropped into the mountain town. The warming effects of the spiced chowder along with a kick ass chai would be fuel for the rest of the night, and I often had a second helping of sambar.

India ended up offering delicious variations of sambar as well. Highlights were found at the Nagarjuna restaurant in Bangalore, the Surguru Spot in Pondicherry (where I finally figured out that this chowder was called sambar), the Hotel Central Tower Restaurant in Chennai, the Gaylord Restaurant in Mumbai, the Dasaprakash Cafe in Agra, The Hotel Hari-Piorko in New Delhi, and Big Ben’s in Haridwar. All have excellent sambars or variations thereof. Sometimes it was served with rice, or a savory pancake (dosa) or a fritter was dunked in it (vada), or a plain piece of flatbread (chapati or roti).

Naturally when I returned to Canada in January, I sought out the spicy indian soup wherever I could… and never saw it on a menu. I did however find dry packaged sambar mixes that were available in some of the asian markets and some grocery stores. They’re ok, but comparing them to fresh sambar is like trying to compare freshly made minestrone to a cup-a-soup.

I then tried to make my own from recipes on the internet, but my attempts fell short and I ended up with a thin broth that had a concrete like sludge at the bottom of the bowl. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong and abandoned my attempts.

Fast forward to the summer. Every year in Winnipeg there is an amazing multicultural festival at the beginning of August called Folklorama. Basically every ethnic community organisation in town puts on a show in a pavilion (which could be anything from a school gym to a convention centre) and offers foods from their respective country or background. It runs for two weeks and you can read about it here.

This year there were four different pavilions offering Indian cuisine. There was an Indo-Caribbean pavilion, Punjab and Tamil pavilions and a general India pavilion that represented the whole country. The food at most of these pavilions was the same fare that can be found at the restaurants like vegetable korma, samosa, and channa masala (in fact they were catered by those same restaurants).

Except for the Tamil Pavilion. They were preparing their own food and not using a local restaurant, and one of their offerings, the masala dosa (savory pancake, rolled and stuffed with vegetables) included a homemade sambar… and it was out of this world! I ended up going back to that pavilion a second time just to have the sambar, and I chatted up the woman who was cooking when she wasn’t busy and learned a few tricks.

The first thing that I learned was that toor dal and the dried pigeon peas that you find in most grocery stores are not the same thing. Toor dal is hulled and split, and the whole pigeon peas were contributing to the cement at the bottom of my bowls. Secondly, sambar powder (sometimes sambar masala) and sambar mix are not the same thing. The powder is a spice mixture for making sambar much like western chili powder, where the mix is more of an instant sambar like soup in a mug.

Armed with this knowledge, I was able to create a much better spicy chowder.

Now, there are many good sambar powders on the market, such as the MTR brand or GITS, but it’s also pretty easy to make your own sambar powder if you have a spice mill or food processor.

Sambar Powder


1 cup coriander seeds (yes you read that right)
3 tbsp cumin seed
2 tbsp chana dal (Split and hulled chick peas)
1 tbsp white urad dal (Split and hulled black lentils)
1 tbsp black pepper corns
1.5 tsp mustard seed
1 tsp fenugreek seed
10 – 15 curry leaves
1 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp asafoetida
2 tbsp Indian red chili powder

(India’s red chili powder is much different from what we call chili powder in the west. The Indian variety is powdered hot chili peppers, where the western variety often contains paprika and oregano. If you don’t have any Indian chili powder, substitute cayenne pepper).


Roast all of the seeds, dal, and curry leaves in a frying pan, careful not to burn.


Grind all ingredients in a spice mill or food processor until you have a fine powder.



Store in an airtight jar for up to a year.

The above recipe makes enough powder for 6 batches of sambar using the following recipe.

Sambar inspired by the Tamil Pavilion at Folklorama

Ingredients (Makes 10 servings)
1 cup toor dal
2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
4 tbsp ghee or olive oil
1 tsp cumin seed
1/4 tsp fenugreek seed
1/2 tsp yellow mustard seed
1/8 tsp asafoetida
10 -12 curry leaves
8 whole dried hot chile peppers, or 2 chopped fresh ones
2 medium tomatoes
2 tbsp tamarind concentrate or 3 tbsp tamarind pulp soaked in water.
3 tbsp sambar powder (from above or store-bought)
1 diced medium onion
1 cup diced summer squash (zucchini, pattypan, sunburst, scallop squash etc.)
1 diced white potato or a handful of quartered baby potatoes
1 cup sliced tindora gourd or parwal (or other vegetable that will tenderise well)


Wash and soak toor dal in about 4 cups of water for at least 1 hour.

Cut onions, tomato, potato, squash, tindora, and any other vegetables into bite size pieces. You should end up with about 4-5 cups worth and set aside.


In large pot add soaked dal, about 2-1/2 cups of water, salt and turmeric then boil on medium high heat for 20 minutes.

In separate fry pan or sauce pan, heat ghee or olive oil.

When oil is hot, add cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, asafetida, red chilies, and curry leaves, and then stir for about 30 seconds or until the seeds start to pop.


Add tomatoes, vegetables, sambar powder, tamarind and 1 cup water.

Cover the pan and let the vegetables cook until they are tender over medium heat, about 15 minutes depending on the vegetables used. (Carrots or potatoes will take longer than squash)


Check dal. it should be soft and mushy.

Mix dal well enough so there are no lumps. I used an immersion blender, but a potato masher will work too. If dal is really thick add another cup of water.


Add the vegetable mixture to the dal mixture in the large pot.

If mixture is still too thick (this will happen if your chosen vegetable is okra), add water as needed.


Cook on medium heat for 10-15 minutes.

Serve hot with your favourite flatbread, dosa, vada, or just pour it over rice.



When I have this dish, it’s like I’m back in the Tamil Pavilion watching the colourful dancers move to fantastic Indian music… although when I wail on a tabla in approximation it tends to spook my cats.

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