A piping hot legacy

Sudha Tilak | Updated on July 24, 2020 Published on July 24, 2020

Being fluid: From thick broths to thin brews, the rasam comes in many avatars   -  IMAGES COURTESY: USHA PRABHAKARAN

Chennai resident Usha Prabhakaran’s forthcoming digest of 1,000 rasam recipes has stirred foodie interest across continents.

* A May 29 article in The New York Times on her forthcoming cookbook Usha’s Rasam Digest, which looks at over 1,000 varieties of the South Indian staple, led to a publicity storm in the proverbial rasam cup

Fame came knocking on cookbook author Usha Prabhakaran’s door in Chennai during the Covid-19 lockdown. A May 29 article in The New York Times on her forthcoming cookbook Usha’s Rasam Digest, which looks at over 1,000 varieties of the South Indian staple, led to a publicity storm in the proverbial rasam cup.

Prabhakaran, 64, has not learnt to go ’gramming her rasam photos, but her garlic rasam made it into Instagram as an “elixir” on the NYT cooking page and the talk around rasam being a healing broth in the time of a pandemic made readers eager to know more about the staggering variety of the humble broth.

Rasam is known for its medicinal effectiveness as an appetiser and as a digestive drink due to the use of tamarind as a base. “It is a great pick-me-up and an immunity booster. It could prove to be a magic elixir to a host of tummy troubles,” says Prabhakaran, adding that rasam is a good antidote for a cough and cold, having an expectorant action that relieves congestion. It also boosts appetite — one of the first casualties of fever — and keeps the body warm and cures sinusitis.

The rasam book was on slow burn for decades, says Prabhakaran. She grew up in a Tamilian household in Chennai’s Mylapore neighbourhood and met her future husband when she went to read law. Marital life followed soon after, and Prabhakaran got busy with running her own home. Thanks to her mother-in-law’s repertoire of Andhra-based pickling, Prabhakaran developed an interest in collecting and preserving recipes from friends and family over the years. She soon found herself researching and documenting the huge variety of pickles in India and self-published a tome of 1,000 recipes, titled Usha’s Pickle Digest, in 1998.

Around this time, a unique experimental recipe of the quotidian South Indian rasam caught her fancy. “Rasam recipes were easier to make, keeping many health issues at bay, apart from being versatile and adaptable to experimentation,” Prabhakaran says. The sexagenarian has a long list of reasons why she loves rasams: The sheer variety of lentils, vegetables, fruit and spices that rasam lends itself to; its many textures from thick broth to thin aromatic brews; a staggering range from the simple to exotic; and its all-year appeal, among others. Her book includes rasams made of galangal, lotus stem, betel leaf, rose apple, turkey berry, tender coconut flesh and mushroom.

During the decades she was collecting recipes, Prabhakaran and her husband faced several health problems; she recently lost her husband. The cookbook idea remained shelved until one day she picked up the recipes of rasam, collated since 2004 and numbering a thousand in all, and began working on them.

A common friend shared the news of a rasam-digest-in-the-making to an NYT reporter, who came calling. Since then, Prabhakaran has been featured in food pages all the way from New York to Ireland. Reporters from both Indian and foreign publications have been hailing her as the “pickle queen” and “rani of rasam”. And, now, what was planned and even readied as another self-published book has several takers among Indian publishers she is in talks with.

“This fuss is unexpected,” she says.

What’s for lunch today, I ask her. “I feel like a saapatu rami, a glutton,” she says and giggles. I insist I want to know.

She lists an elaborate South Indian menu, led by rasam, of course.

Is there a party on? She laughs. This is regular fare at home, she replies. Humble, and newly famous fare, indeed.

Sudha Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist

Mulligatawny rasam with apple
  • Mulligatawny soup is believed to have been savoured in Sri Lanka and reached Tamil Nadu during the British Raj in the 1800s. It derives its name from the Tamil words ‘milagu’ and ‘tanny’, literally meaning ‘pepper water’.
  • “The Indian vegetarian mulligatawny soup is a vegan spin on the otherwise classic chicken mulligatawny soup. It changed into a kind of rasam,” says Usha Prabhakaran.
  • Here’s a mulligatawny rasam of the Victorian era with a fruity twist, from Usha’s Rasam Digest.
  • Ingredients:
  • 2 tbsp moong dal, pressure cooked with a pinch of turmeric powder and a few drops of ghee
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • Apple, quarter cup, unevenly chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1-inch piece fresh root ginger, julienned
  • Curry leaves, a small sprig
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • 1/4 tsp pepper powder
  • A pinch of haldi
  • 1 tbsp coconut milk
  • 2 tsp ghee
  • Salt to taste
  • Method:
  • Heat ghee in a kadai, add chopped onion and sauté until translucent.
  • Add ginger juliennes, chopped garlic and fry until done.
  • Add chopped apple, curry leaves, 2 cups (400 ml) water, salt and boil rasam mixture.
  • Stir in the cooked dal, and add curry powder and pepper powder.
  • Remove from flame when the rasam begins to froth.
  • Garnish rasam with coconut milk before serving.

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Published on July 24, 2020
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