Home Pharmacognosy A quest to find the perfect rasam ship

A quest to find the perfect rasam ship


What chicken soup is to millions of people in the West, rasam is to people in southern India (and southern Indian countries, like Sri Lanka). A panacea, rasam is a quick and easy broth for clearing colds, soothing sore throats, resting grumbling bellies, calming split heads, feeding grumpy kids, and calming grumpy adults.

And no, I’m not making wild claims here; the clinical benefits of rasam have been documented by other experts. “Rasam is a classic example of a traditional functional food with all of its ingredients claimed in medicine for various ailments. Preclinical and clinical studies on rasam and its ingredients support their traditional claim,” write researchers Agilandeswari Devarajan and MK Mohanmaruaraja in a article titled A Comprehensive Review of Rasam: A Traditional Functional Food from South India in the open access peer-reviewed medical journal, Journals of pharmacognosy.

Read also : Burmese cuisine has a new culinary ambassador

For me, rasam is soul food, even ambrosia, especially when it’s made in pure traditional tin eya chombbu.

My earliest memory of rasam is of the spicy, flavorful liquid gently simmering in a eeya chombbu sitting precariously over a coal fire on a signi. We were then living in a Gujarati settlement in Nagpur, and our enterprising owner had made this special stove using cement and an old iron bucket. When he and his family saw my father eating his rasam rice, they laughed at him. “Arre, aa rasam soon che? Do you Madrasis have to lick it from your hand to your elbow?” (We children were given a thicker version of rice mixed with rasam, and we didn’t have to lick the rasam from our elbows. )

at Grandma’s house eeya chombbu shone in the kitchen with its meticulous cleaning routine, unlike the brass vessels of our Gujarati and Maharashtrian neighbours, which did not retain their inner luster for too long. About every two months, the kalaiwala would be called upon to line the inside walls of these vases with tin. How fascinating it was to see the kalaiwala dig a hole in the mud, set up his little oven and burn the coals red hot with air pumped through his bellows! Once the container was hot, he would drop a piece of pewter inside, sprinkle some magic powder (ammonium chloride, I found out decades later), then coat the container with the fast-melting pewter. We watched with wide eyes and clenched noses (ugh, the smell of ammonia!) as the man pointed to the ship glowing like a magician.

One of the most treasured items in my kitchen is the eeya chombbu, part of my kit. That it was pushed into an invisible corner soon after the wedding is a testament to my love for world peace. How, you ask? My dear mother-in-law did what never should be done with this chombbu with its low melting point. She lifted him from the stove with a iddukki, a metal clamp. The tongs ripped a hole in the hot pot and the rasam squirted onto the stove, causing the gas to leak out. This alerted my stepfather, who yelled from somewhere, “WHAT’s going on in the kitchen?”

“Don’t tell him,” Amma begged. And that’s why the body had to be hidden from the crime scene.

Years later, when they both left, I thought it was time to get my eeya chombbu and I recast it because I had never felt fully satisfied with rasam made in what we called “always silver vessels” – stainless steel. But at that time, some people understood that eeyam meant lead in Tamil, and this lead would cause poisoning. Throw your eeya pathirams, was their battle cry. I discreetly put mine away in the back of a cupboard.

It took a few years of consuming the least pungent, lead-free rasams for the collective brain to wake up and realize that eeyam also meant tin in Tamil. Vellai eeyam or lead white for pewter, and karu eeyam or black lead, the toxic version. And took out the eeya pathirams in many Tamil homes, the rasam made there fills homes with heavenly aroma.

That our grandparents and all of us north and south of the Satpuras survived should be proof enough that tin is not a killer element. Every Tamilian household had these pewter vessels of different shapes and sizes. Traditionally, craftsmen in the temple town of Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu hammered sheets of tin and shaped them into vessels. The craftsmanship continues to this day, although very few craftsmen remain.

By then, I had developed an urge to only buy things from the source. If I had to buy one eeya chombbu or have my old one recast, I should go to Kumbakonam. But years have passed chasing deadlines, with meals being lightning-fast dishes cooked simultaneously on four burners over high heat or in minutes in the microwave. Who had time to go to Kumbakonam or slowly make rasam in delicate vessels that tended to melt in the fire?

Read also : The myths and legends behind the versatile “poha”

A few years ago, while visiting Chennai, I succumbed to temptation and decided to treat myself to a new eeya chombbu. Back in Bangalore, I did rasam slowly after many years. First, fill the jar with tamarind water; add rasam powder, salt and crushed tomatoes. Only then place the pan on the stove. Simmer. Add the cooked dal. Simmer. Wait for the rasam to slowly foam up. Turn off the stove. Prepare the filling by heating a spoon of ghee and adding mustard seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves. Add the coriander leaves. Inhale Exhale. Some people go to the Himalayas to achieve peace of mind. Me? I just did rasam in the eeya chombbu and savor every piece of rasam rice.

Mala Kumar is the author of Up the Mountains of India, written while swallowing many goblets of rasam and dreaming of kahwa and rhododendron wine.