The air has gotten a whole lot colder here in Sydney. Our balcony, while offering us unimpeded views of the city, is also exposed to sometimes aggressive winds. We often come home to find that anything that is not heavy or secured down has been ruthlessly thrown out of its place. Vegetation must be limited to heavy, solid pots against the sheltered wall. The gardenia I resurrected from a dried-up stick trembles behind the cane chair, refusing to bloom under such conditions. The spiny succulent sits against the door, resolutely maintaining its preference for the outdoors while it cowers in the corner of the door frame. There’s a trough of herbs which I planted with almost no hope for their survival, given my dubious history with keeping anything edible alive. Surprisingly, they stare at me defiantly, a few leaves tattered but still very much alive and almost productive enough to harvest for tossing through dishes.
The winter quilt and heaters came out a few weeks ago. Winter clothes were unraveled from suitcases, some forgotten about, the reminder of their existence like a small retail-therapy buzz. Dragging ourselves out of bed an hour earlier to fit in a gym session seems like a mammoth undertaking, and we are more frequently hitting the snooze button to favour a little extra time in the warmth instead. Noses run unbidden and at the most inconvenient of times. Our throats are scratchy on occasion and each time, we wonder whether it’s a cold or worse still, the dreaded flu.
There are cravings for soup and these are dutifully satisfied. Rasam is a South Indian staple. It is what every southie kid remembers eating several times a week, mixed with rice and accompanied by a vegetable side dish. It is the antidote to sniffles, colds, and even the dreaded flu. Rasam is a delicate balance of spice, sourness and salty undertones. It takes a little practice but it’s worth getting just so. This version uses limes, as I was gifted a bag of these by a generous colleague with an overactive lime tree. Also, pepper to soothe the throat, the comforting sourness of tamarind and a few basic spices. Rasam is often made with lentils, but this one is more of a clear broth.
For more wintery comfort foods, try this dhal, Palak Paneer, or this Egg Curry.
Lime and Pepper Rasam
1 golfball sized chunk of dried tamarind
2 L boiling water
7-8 cm fresh ginger, finely grated
½ tbsp freshly ground pepper
1 tsp whole peppercorns
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 ½ tbsp tightly packed soft brown sugar or jaggery
Salt to taste
3-4 tbsp lime or lemon juice
Small handful fresh coriander, roughly chopped
2 tsp vegetable oil
2 tsp cumin seeds
Pinch asofoetida (optional)
6-8 fresh curry leaves
Shred the tamarind with your fingers and place in a bowl with 1 cup boiling water, set aside. Place 6 cups boiling water in a medium sized saucepan on the stove. Add ginger, spices and jaggery. Bring back to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. When the water that is soaking the tamarind is cool enough to handle, squeeze the tamarind within your fingers to extract the flavor into the water. Yes, it feels kind of gross but no pain, no gain. Set aside for another few minutes. Add salt to the rasam mixture, starting with 1 tsp. Stir to dissolve, and taste- you may need to add another ¼ to ½ tsp.
Strain the tamarind water into the rasam mixture, taking care not to include any chunks of tamarind. Simmer for another 10 minutes. If the mixture is getting too concentrated, add a little boiling water. Taste along the way. There should be a nice balance of pepperiness, and sourness form the tamarind which is offset by salt and sugar. Remember this is a savoury dish so sugar should not be the predominant flavor.
Once you are happy with the flavor balance, boil for another 10 minutes, then take off heat. Add 3 tbsp lemon or lime juice, taste and add a little more if a subtle flavor is not coming through.
To temper: In a small saucepan, heat oil on the stove. Add cumin seeds and allow them to pop. Add asofoetida, then curry leaves and stand back because they will sizzle and pop in a violent fashion. You may need to turn the heat down before you bolt to the other side of the kitchen. Once the spluttering tantrum is over, add the tempered mixture into the rasam and stir through.
Finally, add coriander leaves and stir. Serve mixed with rice or on its own as a clear soup. If it is a little too spicy for you, allow the sediment to settle and scoop the clearer liquid from the top, which will be less peppery.