by Abha Iyengar
The peppercorns crackle as
my grandmother puts them into the pan with the oil already hot and waiting.
I am sitting in her kitchen, big and warm with its coal fires burning,
cross-legged on the floor. I am there out of choice, since the kitchen
warmth and her story telling is making me forget my sniveling cold.
Moreover, the winter night is dark and intimidating, hinting of ghosts, and
I prefer to be inside. My sister sits right next to me, ensuring that she is
close enough to whisper her comments as the story unfolds and the soup cooks
The tale is from the Ramayana, an Indian epic of great proportions, but
which my Granny can recite verbatim. She is now telling us, in her own
words, how Hanuman (the monkey God) , who is a devotee of Prince Ram of
Ayodhya (also a God) is asked to get a herb to save Prince Ram’s life. This
is the “Sanjivni Buti” found atop a mountain.
I am all ears and wide eyes, but my sister giggles behind me.
“Look, Granny is putting the same in your soup to save your life.”
I look carefully, and find her putting a handful of curry leaves in the
I pick up a few of them and crush them between my fingers, then rub the
paste on my sister’s nose. She squeals in anger, and thankfully Granny asks
her to come chop some tomatoes. My behavior is excused because I am not
“You cannot undermine the value of these herbs and spices,” says my
grandmother, giving us a toothy smile. “So, where was I…”
She continues with the story.
“Hanuman cannot find the herb, so in exasperation; he uproots the whole
mountain and brings it to Prince Ram’s side, so that he may be saved.” I
have seen such pictures of Hanuman with a mountain in one hand as he flies
through the air, and now I can understand why.
My sister arranges the chopped tomatoes in a big mountain heap and grins
“Here, Granny,” she says, “the mountain.”
My grandmother deftly transfers the tomato heap to the concoction that she
is busy preparing just for me.
Mom’s not here or she would have protested about the use of the long red
chillies which I watched Granny put in. I love the taste of chillies, green
or red, so I didn’t mind. It made my eyes water and according to my
grandmother it would make my nose water too. This would ensure that all the
stuff that was making my head ache would liquefy and find its way out. The
hot soup would make my sore throat feel better. The pepper had curative
properties. As my sister said, the soup would make me rise from the dead,
which is the way I felt right now.
The ‘rasam’ cooked and cooked, and a delightful aroma filled the kitchen.
Once it was ready, Granny placed it in front of me. She then sat facing me,
cross-legged on her creaky knees, and fed me with a large spoon held in her
loving hands. My sister watched, waiting her turn, knowing that Granny would
feed her next, in the same way, regardless of the fact that she was quite
well. That was just my grandmother’s way of doing things. Nothing was too
time consuming or taxing for her. She mixed her love and prayers along with
whatever she cooked, and served it with a smile on her lined and weathered
Prince Ram was revived with the “Sanjivni Buti” and later ruled his kingdom
well. Needless to say, I too revived in heath and spirit with the help of
ladles of ‘rasam’ prepared by my grandmother.
It is from her that my mother and I have learnt the curative power of food.
All the herbs and spices used in Indian cooking are added not only for
flavor and aroma, but also for ensuring longevity and good health.
Its better than popping a pill any day.
N.B. “Rasam’ can be had as a soup any day, anytime, by young and old alike.
Its hot, spicy and delicious!
THE SIMPLE RECIPE OF “RASAM” OR SPICED TOMATO SOUP
2 large ripe healthy tomatoes
4 cups water or top water of boiled yellow lentils (dal stock)
2 whole red chillies
8-10 curry leaves
1 sprig coriander leaves
1/2 tsp. curry powder
1 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. mustard seeds
2 pinches asfoetida
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 small strip tamarind
1 tbsp. ghee or oil
salt to taste
1. Put whole tomatoes and tamarind in 2 small cups of boiling water, simmer
for 3 minutes, and keep aside for 5 minutes.
2. Strain tomato and tamarind pulp through a sieve.
3. Heat 1/4 tsp. oil in a small pan, add pepper corns and 1 tsp. cumin
4. Roast till aromatic, grind in a mortar or under a stone till powdered.
5. Take a deep pan, add lentil stock /water. Add tomato and tamarind pulp,
salt, sugar, powdered spices, curry powder. Cook for 10 minutes on slow
6. Heat oil in a small pan, add mustard seeds, whole red chillies broken in
two, curry leaves, asfoetida and allow to splutter. Add to rasam
7. Bring rasam to a boil, check spices and salt and adjust.
8. Simmer for 2-3 minutes. Keep aside covered for 10 minutes before serving.
9. Serve hot as a soup or with steaming hot plain rice.
Making time: 30 minutes
Shelf life: Best served piping hot and fresh.