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Chicken rasam to clear the sinuses
I find myself making soup when I feel under the weather or when my body feels like it needs some hydration. While I tend to reach for Chinese medicinal herbs or dried goodies such as dried scallops when making soup, I’ve grown really fond of making chicken rasam. It’s well-spiced, has umami from the chicken and tomatoes, and has such an appetizing tang. I also think that it balances out other dishes so well on nights where we are eating Indian food at home.
This time of the year is perfect for such a sinus-clearing soup because flowers are in full-bloom and the high pollen count is really getting to Wex (though I am surprisingly immune to it).
I first learnt of rasam from Aruna Shanmuga Vadivel, one of our contributors for the Deepavali edition of Seasonings Magazine, who came on the podcast last year to chat with me all about it. Aruna says that she used to eat this soup almost every day at home as part of her meals, and that she considers it a kind of functional food for its medicinal properties.
Even though the rasam that Aruna taught me to make is vegan, she tells me that other variations exist and recalls a crab rasam that she’s had at a restaurant where the tangy soup penetrated the shell and into the flesh of the crustacean.
The way I make chicken rasam is a one-pot method. If you’ve made soups from Singapore Noodles in the past, you’d realise that I’m very fond of frying chicken pieces in a dry pot with no oil. The chicken skin renders as it cooks and this is what provides the fat needed to temper the spices in the rasam. The browning also adds so much flavour that it is possible to get a very flavourful soup is very little time.
Adding crushed, whole garlic cloves is something I picked up from Aruna. Her grandmother, whom she learnt the dish from, emphasised crushing the garlic to release allicin, which reduces heart-related diseases. I also like that, when you keep garlic whole, you get mellow and sweet fat cloves at the end of the cooking process to eat.
Once the leaves and spices start popping in the chicken fat, I add rasam powder from Jeya Spices, owned by third-generation spiceman Jeya Seelan who was previously on the podcast. The very lovely Taahira from Spice Zi Kitchen generously mailed this to me and it's helped quell my homesickness during the pandemic so much!
I give the chicken a good toss with the spices, then add water and LOTS of tomatoes… like more than half the weight of the chicken. Tomatoes in soups are so underrated - they add so much umami and natural sweetness, not to mention a beautiful red sheen to the finished soup. I always feel very nourished and hydrated whenever I drink a soup with lots of tomatoes.
While I leave tomatoes in wedges when making ABC soup, for rasam, I like them to disintegrate fully into the soup. Aruna describes the tomatoes in her soup as “smashed”. For this, I cut the tomatoes in half, squeeze the pulp into the pot, then chop up the flesh before adding it to the soup. You can skip the squeezing, but because tomatoes are so juicy, they tend to make a bit of a mess when chopped with their pulp, and you lose a lot of the flavourful juices.
With so much tomatoes and good browning, the soup does not need long to get good flavour. I typically boil it for just 20 minutes, while I cook the rice and prepare a vegetable dish or two. The time is really arbitrary. If you are cooking more dishes or the rice takes awhile to cook, put a lid on and lower the heat to cook the soup longer - you get a fall-off-the-bone chicken that way.
Once ready to serve, stir in some tamarind pulp and scatter over chopped coriander. This is a great use for all the straggly coriander stems that you have in your refrigerator. And there you have it! A flavourful soup that is punchy, sweet, tangy, and umami, with a lovely red sheen - a combination of the disintegrated tomato, turmeric and chicken fat. Delicious with rice, but I had it with leftover biryani and it was THE BOMB. Chicken rasam, where have you been my whole life!
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850g skin-on, bone-in chicken, cut into large pieces
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp black peppercorns
5 dried chillies
25g garlic cloves, crushed
A handful of curry leaves
A pinch of asafoetida
1 1/2 tbsp rasam powder, homemade (see the ground spices in Aruna’s recipe below) or store-bought, or to taste
2 tsp turmeric powder
600g tomato, chopped
1 tbsp salt, or to taste
1 tbsp seedless tamarind pulp, or to taste
25g coriander leaves, or a mixture of leaves and stems, thinly sliced
Set a large, wide pot on high heat. Add the chicken pieces, skin-side down, in a single layer. Fry the chicken for a few minutes without touching so that the pieces develop a golden brown sear on the underside. Flip the chicken and repeat on the other side.
By this point, some fat would have rendered from the chicken skin. Add the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, black peppercorns, dried chillies, garlic, curry leaves, and asafoetida. Stir everything well to toast the spices in the chicken fat, and to coat the chicken in the flavourful oil.
When you hear the seeds and leaves popping, add the rasam powder. Stir for a minute or two to coat the chicken well and to toast the spices.
Add the turmeric powder, water, tomato, and salt. Bring to a boil and cook on high heat for 20 minutes, uncovered, stirring occasionally. This is a good time to cook your rice and other side dishes.
When the chicken is completely tender and cooked through, turn off the heat. Stir in the tamarind pulp. Taste and adjust with more salt and tamarind if necessary. When you’re happy with the way it tastes, scatter over the coriander leaves and stir it into the soup.
Aruna Shanmuga Vadivel’s rasam (vg)
For the ground spices:
¼ tsp fenugreek
1 tsp cumin seeds
2-4 dried chillies
¾ teaspoon black peppercorns
2 tsp sesame oil or vegetable oil
¼ tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 dried chilli
5 big garlic cloves, crushed
A handful of curry leaves
A pinch of asafoetida
1 big tomato, chopped
To complete the rasam:
¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
Tamarind the size of a small lime, massaged in 500g water, then passed through a sieve, or 50g tamarind pulp + 500g water
Salt, to taste
A handful of coriander, chopped
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper (optional)
Begin by making the ground spices. Combine them in a small saucepan and roast gently until fragrant. Cool them down completely before grinding into a coarse powder. Set aside.
Prepare the tempering by heating the oil in a large pot. Add the mustard and cumin seeds. Stir until they pop. Add the dried chilli, garlic, curry leaves, and asafoetida. Cook until the curry leaves pop. Add the tomato and cover the pot. Cook on low heat until the tomato becomes mushy.
To complete the rasam, add the turmeric and 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of the ground spice powder (or to your taste) to the pot. Cook gently until fragrant.
Add the tamarind pulp juice and bring to a simmer on high heat. As soon as you see bubbles forming on the side of the pot, turn off the stove. Do not boil or you will get a bitter taste. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of tap water to stop the residual heat from cooking through.
Season to taste with salt and throw in the coriander leaves. The dish can be served hot, warm or at room temperature. You can also add ground black pepper at the end for an added punch if you are feeling unwell or having flu-like symptoms.