What chicken soup is to millions of people in the West, rasam is to the people of South India (and countries south of India, like Sri Lanka). A cure-all, rasam is a quick and easy broth to clear colds, soothe sore throats, rest growling tummies, settle splitting heads, feed cranky children, and calm down crankier adults.
And no, I am not making wild claims here; the clinical benefits of rasam have been documented by other experts. "Rasam is a classic example of traditional functional food with all its ingredients medicinally claimed for various ailments. The preclinical and clinical studies on rasam and its ingredients support their traditional claim," write researchers Agilandeswari Devarajan and M. K. Mohanmaruaraja in an article titled A Comprehensive Review on Rasam: A South Indian Traditional Functional Food in the peer-reviewed, open-access medical journal, Pharmacognosy Reviews.
For me, rasam is soul food, ambrosia even, especially when it is made in the traditional, pure tin eeya chombbu.
My earliest memory of rasam is of the spicy, flavoursome liquid simmering gently in an eeya chombbu sitting precariously over a coal fire on a sigdi. We lived in a Gujarati colony in Nagpur then, and our enterprising landlord had made this special stove using cement and an old iron bucket. When he and his family saw my father enjoying his rasam rice, they made fun of him. “Arre, aa rasam soon che? You Madrasis have to lick it off your hand right up to your elbow?" (We kids were given a thicker version of rice mixed with rasam, and we did not have to lick rasam off our elbows.)
Grandmother's eeya chombbu shone on in the kitchen with her meticulous cleaning routine, unlike our Gujarati and Maharashtrian neighbours' brass vessels, which did not retain their inner glow for too long. Every two months or so, the kalaiwala would be called to re-coat the inner side of these vessels with tin. How fascinating it was to see the kalaiwala dig a hole in the mud, set up his little kiln, and make the coal burn a fiery red with air pumped through his bellows! Once the vessel was hot, he would drop a piece of tin on the inside, sprinkle a magic powder (ammonium chloride, I found out many decades later), and then coat the vessel with the fast-melting tin. We watched with our eyes peeled and our noses held tight (ugh, the smell of ammonia!) as the man showed off the gleaming vessel like a magician.
One of the most precious items in my kitchen is the eeya chombbu, a part of my trousseau. That it was pushed away to 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 one should never do with this chombbu with its low melting point. She lifted it off the stove with an iddukki, a metal tong. The tongs made a hole in the hot vessel, and the rasam gushed out onto the stove, which made the gas leak. It alerted my father-in-law, who bellowed from somewhere, "WHAT is happening in the kitchen?"
"Don't tell him," pleaded Amma. And that is why the body had to be hidden from the crime scene.
Years later, when they had both departed, I thought it was time to bring out my eeya chombbu and recast it since I had never felt fully satisfied with the rasam made in what we called ‘ever silver vessels’ -- stainless steel. But by then, some people had caught on that eeyam meant lead in Tamil, and that lead would cause poisoning. Throw out your eeya pathirams, was their war cry. I quietly stored mine at the back of a cupboard.
It took some years of consuming the less zestful and unleaded rasams for the collective brain to wake up and realise that eeyam also meant tin in Tamil. Vellai eeyam or white lead for tin, and karu eeyam or black lead, the poisonous version. And out came the eeya pathirams in many Tamilian households, the rasam made in it filling homes with a heavenly aroma.
That our grandparents and all of us to the north and south of the Satpuras have survived should be enough proof that tin is not a killer element. Every Tamilian household had these tin vessels of different shapes and sizes. Traditionally, craftspersons in the temple town of Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu hammered sheets of tin and moulded them into vessels. The craft continues to this day, though there are very few artisans left.
By now, I had developed an urge to buy things only from the source. If I had to buy an eeya chombbu or get my old one recast, I'd have to go to Kumbakonam. But the years went by chasing deadlines, with meals being super-quick dishes cooked simultaneously on four burners on high flame or in minutes in the microwave. Who had the time to travel to Kumbakonam or make rasam slowly in delicate vessels that tended to melt into the fire?
A few years back, on a visit to Chennai, I succumbed to temptation and decided to get myself a new eeya chombbu. Back in Bengaluru, I made rasam the slow way after many years. First, fill the pot with some tamarind water; add the rasam powder, salt and chopped tomatoes. Only then put the pot on the stove. Simmer. Add cooked dal. Simmer. Wait for the rasam to slowly foam at the top. Turn off the stove. Prepare the garnish by heating a spoon of ghee and adding mustard seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves. Add coriander leaves. Breathe in, breathe out. Some people go to the Himalayas to attain peace of mind. Me? I just make rasam in the eeya chombbu and relish every morsel of rasam rice.
Mala Kumar is the author of Up the Mountains of India, written while guzzling many tumblers of rasam and dreaming of kahwa and rhododendron wine.