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Rasam is a dish that originates from the south of India, but has since become common all over India. It is usually made as a watery soup, with a taste leaning towards sourness. Traditionally, it is the second course in a South Indian meal, preceded and followed by rice courses.
Depending on the region, the dish can have a variety of names and meanings in a variety of languages. In its original language, Tamil, rasam is translated as “juice,” while the Kannada language translates the word as “essence.” Iyengars, or the Brahmins in the Tamil region, knew the dish as “chaathamudhu,” loosely translated as “ambrosia.” The dish is also called “pulichaar” by the elderly South Indians, a word that means “tart.”
It was said that the soup originally had tamarind and pepper as its primary ingredients, as these were once plentiful in South India. Ultimately, the variations that grew out of the original version had a common factor: sourness. To get that tangy flavor, different acidic fruits are used, such as tomatoes, lemon, lime, and pineapple. Different spices such as ginger, mustard seeds, and cumin can also be used to attain that sour effect. Some versions of the soup even use whole cane sugar, or jaggery, to get a sweeter taste.
Aside from sour fruits, another primary ingredient of the rasam are lentils, or “dal” in India. The lentils give the dish body and texture and are sometimes used to cut off some of the sourness or the spiciness of the soup. Sometimes, the dal is mashed to make the soup less watery. Rasam is essentially a vegetarian soup, so different green vegetables can be added, such as leaves of curry, coriander, and cilantro. Peas are also a companion to the lentils and provide a different texture.
Other rasam ingredients that are distinctly Indian are curry, turmeric, and asafetida. Coconut milk, which usually goes well with curry spice, can also be included to make the soup. A packaged rasam powder that combines that taste of all the tangy ingredients is available in many grocery stores.
Rasam provides many health benefits, such as a good dose of vitamin C from the acidic fruits, and vitamin A from tomatoes. The leafy green vegetables supply fiber, folic acid, and magnesium, while the tamarind is said to aid proper digestion and lower cholesterol. The lentils in the soup also provide protein, especially for people who are not getting enough protein from meat.