In a typical Tamilian household, rasam is comfort food. Piping hot rasam is the antidote for most ills, right from the sniffles to the flu. And why not? Made with ingredients like pepper, ginger and cumin, rasam does have medicinal properties. The tangy flavour that tamarind, tomatoes and/or lemon lend to rasam makes it just the perfect thing to enliven tastebuds that have grown dull. It is very light on the stomach, easy to digest, as well. Rasam is soul food at our place too, with several different versions being prepared from time to time. I bring to you today the recipe for a special kind of rasam, straight from a culinary legend of Tamilnadu – Nataraja Iyer Rasam.
About Nataraja Iyer
Nataraja Iyer is not a new name in the South Indian food industry, particularly in Chennai (erstwhile Madras). He was a stalwart in the field of event catering, a man who started off small but who grew through the ranks. His career had a very humble beginning – he started off serving tables at small eateries in Trichy, when he was but a little boy himself. He came from a family of cooks, and would assist his grandfather, doing odd jobs in the kitchen, while the old man catered for weddings and other occasions.
Soon enough, Nataraja Iyer came into his own, both in terms of cooking and catering. In the 1940s or so, he started catering events on his own, business growing by leaps and bounds as more and more people started talking about the brilliant food he dished up. So great was his draw that people would immediately agree to be guests at a wedding when they would come to know that the food was to be catered by Nataraja Iyer. He catered for several celebrity weddings in Chennai, in the course of which VV Giri (former President of India) bestowed upon him the title of ‘Arusuvai Arasu‘ i.e. king of all the six tastes that constitute good food, namely sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter and astringent.
Arusuvai Arasu Caterers – started by Nataraja Iyer, now run by his children after the legend’s passing away in 2018 – remains a well-respected establishment in Tamilnadu till date. However, in spite of his huge achievements in the culinary field, having served at over 75,000 events spanning his career, Nataraja Iyer stayed a humble man till the end. He believed in sharing his knowledge, and started writing a column in the famed Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan with just that end in mind. He shared recipes for some of his signature dishes – rasam, vattalkozhambu, milagu kozhambu, kadappa, rasavangi and paal payasam, for instance – in his column to make sure they reached the masses. There’s much to learn from the life of this great man, indeed!
Nataraja Iyer Rasam
One of the most delicious rasam versions ever, Nataraja Iyer Rasam is a big-time favourite in our household. I remember my grandmother making this rasam – thanks to Ananda Vikatan I suppose – to much adulation. The recipe passed down in our family, and I occasionally prepare it too.
Nataraja Iyer Rasam does not call for any pre-made spice powder. Freshly ground cumin and black peppercorns flavour it, with spiciness also coming from the ginger, dry red chillies and green chillies that are added in. The bit of jaggery used in the rasam gives it a sweet tinge, which beautifully balances out the tang from the tomatoes and tamarind. Quite interestingly, there is a wee amount of fenugreek seeds used in the tempering, probably for inducing slight bitterness, a la ‘Arusuvai Arasu’.
This is a completely vegetarian recipe, suitable to those who follow a vegan or plant-based diet. It can be made entirely gluten-free simply by avoiding the asafoetida used in the tempering.
How to make Nataraja Iyer Rasam
Without further ado, let me now share the recipe for Nataraja Iyer Rasam. Try it out, and I’m sure you will fall in love with it too!
I share this recipe for #RasamRaaga, the theme for the week at Foodie Monday Blog Hop. The theme was chosen by me so as to celebrate the very versatile rasam, also keeping in mind the chilly weather these days. September 2019 marks the first death anniversary of Nataraja Iyer, and I couldn’t think of a more fitting tribute to him than this post.
So, here we go.
Ingredients (serves 4-5):
- 1/4 cup toor dal
- 2 medium-sized tomatoes
- A small lemon-sized ball of tamarind
- A 1-inch piece of ginger
- 2 green chillies
- 2 sprigs of fresh curry leaves
- 4-5 dry red chillies
- About 3/4 tablespoon jaggery powder
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- Salt to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
For the tempering:
- 1/2 tablespoon ghee
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 2 pinches of asafoetida
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- A pinch of fenugreek seeds
For the garnishing:
2 tablespoons finely chopped coriander
1. Wash the toor dal well under running water, a couple of times. Drain out all the water. Add in enough fresh water to cover the toor dal fully. Pressure cook the toor dal for 6-7 whistles on high flame, or till it is cooked thoroughly. Let the pressure release naturally.
2. Soak the tamarind in a little hot water for 10-15 minutes or till it softens. Allow it to cool down enough to handle.
3. Chop the tomatoes finely. Keep aside.
4. Slit the green chillies length-wise. Keep aside.
5. Peel the ginger. Chop very finely. Keep aside.
6. In a small mixer jar, grind the cumin and peppercorns together, coarsely. Keep aside.
7. When the pressure from the cooker has fully gone down, get the cooked toor dal out. Mash it well. Keep aside.
8. Adding water little by little, extract all the juice out of the tamarind. You would get about half cup of tamarind water, approximately. Keep aside.
9. Heat a pan and add the chopped tomatoes and finely chopped ginger to it. Add in about 2 tablespoons of water and a little salt. Cook on high flame till the tomatoes turn mushy.
10. Add the tamarind water, salt to taste, dry red chillies (broken), slit green chillies, turmeric powder and curry leaves. Cook on high flame till the raw smell of the tamarind goes away, 2-3 minutes.
11. Now, add the cooked and mashed toor dal to the pan. Also add about 1-1/2 cups water, the jaggery powder and the coarsely crushed cumin and peppercorns. Mix well. Taste and adjust salt if needed.
12. Cook on high flame till the mixture comes to a boil. Then, reduce flame to medium and simmer for a couple of minutes. Switch off gas.
13. Now, we will prepare the tempering for the rasam. Heat the ghee in a small pan. Add mustard, and allow it to pop. Lower flame to medium. Add the cumin seeds for the tempering, asafoetida and fenugreek seeds. Let them stay in for a couple of seconds, taking care to ensure that the ingredients do not burn. Switch off gas. Add this tempering to the rasam.
14. Add the finely chopped coriander leaves to the rasam. Mix well. Your flavourful Nataraja Iyer Rasam is ready to serve! Serve it hot, with hot steamed rice and a South Indian-style poriyal on the side.
1. Adjust the quantity of tamarind and jaggery you use, as per personal taste preferences.
2. A few cloves of garlic, crushed, can be added in to the rasam while it is simmering. This adds a beautiful taste to it.
3. Adjust the quantity of water you use, depending upon the consistency of the rasam you desire.
4. Do not use too much of fenugreek in the tempering, as this will make the rasam overly bitter.
5. Country (nati) tomatoes are best for making this rasam, rather than ‘farm’ ones.
6. Oil can be used in the tempering, instead of ghee.
7. I used a mix of the spicy Salem Gundu and the not-so-fiery Bydagi dry red chillies to make the rasam.
8. Make sure the toor dal is well cooked and mashed, before using it in the rasam.
Did you like this recipe? Do tell me, in your comments!