This clear soup made with white winter radish is quite an unheard story in the culinary scene of Odisha unlike the other more famous ones like dalma. Made with a bare minimum ingredients, this radish soup called as moola chaaru in Odia is a common preparation in the home kitchens of southern Odisha, particularly in the Ganjam district.
Moola means radish and chaaru means the soupy water, the part chaaru being borrowed from the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh which most likely inspired the preparation of chaaru pani (soupy spicy water) in Odisha.
Chaaru in Telugu, saaru in Kannada, rasam in Tamil are the various names of clear soups made in the different southern states of India including Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Whether paired with rice or sipped as a soup, chaaru is a bowl of comfort for me and an instant relief for my clogged sinuses when temperatures plummet.
Although a rasam or chaaru is perhaps best described as a soup, I tend to think they're more than just boiling broths spiced and soured for adding taste. I say this because someone who has never made or tasted a rasam or chaaru will perhaps interpret it as such, and my aim is to not let that happen! To understand what this soup is, it's important to get a grip of it's layers as my mother emphasized when I had first asked her the recipe for chaaru.
Anatomy of a rasam or charu...
Although rasams, chaarus and saarus are usually clubbed under the umbrella term rasam, all these soups somewhat have an individuality of their own which may not always be pinpoint. Having said that, I also understand while each is a league of its own, the fundamental behind the three is common. Or perhaps that is how I have understood it over the years.
Using this theory, I'll try to lay a simplified process here describing how the different layers of flavour and texture are built in these clear soups of southern India.
There's usually some seasonal vegetable, fruit or greens which is a central ingredient in the soup favoured for its medicinal or healing properties. For example, white radish in this recipe aids in digestion, fights cough and cold, boosts immunity owing to its richness in nutrients, especially vitamin C and falls in the winter root vegetables repertoire.
The central ingredient is then cooked or mixed with souring agents and water but no overcooking is encouraged. Many rasam and chaaru recipes will call forth the water drained from boiling dals (split beans or legumes) or even use some amount of dal in them. The moola chaaru made in Odisha here does not use dal although I'd not mind divulging from the usual and boosting some nutrients by adding dal sometimes.
Now, there are myriad of souring agents like tomatoes, tamarind, limes, yogurt, Indian gooseberry, pineapple and whatnot to prepare rasams! In this recipe, the white radish is boiled with tamarind, turmeric and salt, and the mildly sweet flavours of the radish mingle with the sourness of tamarind. Some rasams may not need a souring agent as the central fruit or vegetable is sour enough.
No other broth is added to thicken the soup because rasams or charus are supposed to be light, watery and usually see-through soups. However, the ones made with dal will be slightly thicker in consistency than the clear ones.
Once the broth is simmering and the central ingredient, radish in this case, has turned tender, a seasoning of spices is done as the top note. While this may seem like a step to enhance taste, it's purpose isn't only that. Tempering in Indian cooking closely follows the doctrines of Ayurveda that describe the anti-inflammatory nature of spices and how spice flavours dissolve in fats. So, adding a spicy seasoning in the soup ensures a flavour packed medicinal layer. Adhering to this, many recipes also include specific rasam or saaru podis, spice blends that are premade.
The Odia chaaru pani...
The word pani (water) in the Odia version of the Andhra chaaru intrigued me early on, and on asking mother why the additional word, she explained that chaarus in Odisha tend to be rather watery and clear, and thus dals are generally not favoured in the recipes. A similar example in the Andhra cuisine is perhaps Mamidikaya Majjiga Pulusu, a summer soup made with mangoes in a broth of yogurt. The Andhra pulusu which bears a resemblance with Tamil kuzhambu is similar to the Odia kanji, especially the ones made with yogurt called dahi kanji.
Crossing many parallel lines and influenced from the bordered cuisines, we can safely say that Odia food in its south-eastern realm adopted the tanginess and soupiness of the Andhra chaaru along with its name but chose to give it a new identity with its own seasoning. Unlike the southern states where distinct podis are often used for rasams, chaarus and saarus —I know cooks who have precise directions to use podis and will not do otherwise— in Odisha, there aren't native spice blends to flavour the chaaru pani. The famed paanch-phoron, a combination of mustard, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and nigella seeds, along with whole dried red chilies rule the norm. Garlic and curry leaves are often added into this seasoning while the souring agents range from tamarind, mango kernels, tomatoes, yogurt to many more.
Since Odia cuisine tends to have a no-onion-garlic version for almost every dish, the garlic is replaced with asafoetida in the chaaru pani seasoning by those who want it garlic free.
On mother's specific instructions...
Mother is quite flexible with trying new things in the kitchen but surprisingly she will not budge on certain spices and techniques. For example, when I moved to Canada, I found red radish to be common in the markets as opposed to white radish. When I consulted her how red radish would taste instead of white in the moola chaaru, she was quick to retort, "It's peppery and sharp in taste opposed to the white radish. I'd rather add it alongside other vegetables and add some jaggery with tamarind to balance the flavours. Just the way a phala kanji is made."
I'm after all her daughter — I had to do things my way, so I tried it with the red radish and understood her stance! When I found rather giant radishes here at the start of winter this year, I knew a fact-finding was on its way. Indian radish is much smaller and narrower in structure. The ones we find here are Daikon, a Japanese radish which is grown in many Asian countries. Mother was familiar with this variety, and advised that rather than slicing them round, I cut them up into thin triangles. Not too thin that they loose their shape while being boiled and not too thick how we add them in dals or gravies.
The sequence of the spices in the seasoning is crucial. Although mustard oil is beloved in Odia cooking, mother suggests not letting its pungency affect the tone of the chaaru. Use any oil that's neutral in fragrance. First to be added in the hot oil are chilies and we let them swell and infuse their flavour in the fat. Next to go in is the paanch-phoron, and as soon as the seeds change colour and crackle, the curry leaves are added. The last is garlic which is pounded or asafoetida, and before things burn the spiced oil is dunked in the chaaru.
To get the best out of this chaaru, slice the radishes nice and thin and let them boil and be cooked through before you do the tempering. Follow the sequence as I've mentioned above.
It's a very simple recipe and I know some who often don't understand what's the fuss about this chaaru. It's just spiced tamarind water with radish floating in it after all. Although I'd say the simplest of things are the most joyous, and also the most underrated!
For the chaaru
1 and 1/2 cup thinly sliced white radish (roughly 2 medium sized radishes or a quarter of a large Daikon)
4 cups of water
a lime sized ball of tamarind, soaked in water and juice extracted
1/2 tsp turmeric
Salt to taste
For the seasoning:
1 tbsp neutral oil
2-3 dried red whole chilies
1 tsp paanch-phoron (mustard+cumin+fennel+fenugreek+nigella seeds)
3-4 cloves of garlic pounded
4-5 curry leaves
In a pot, boil the radish slices along with water, salt, turmeric and tamarind water. Bring it to a boil and continue boiling for 20 to 30 minutes or until the radish is tender. Once the radish is soft and cooked, switch off the heat.
In a tadka pan, heat oil and then add the dried red chilies. Let the chilies smoke and puff up and then add the panch-phoron, crushed garlic and curry leaves. Let everything sizzle and then pour this tempering on the soup that has simmered in the pot.
Cover immediately and boil for 4-5 minutes again for the flavours to combine.
Switch off the heat, stir and serve hot!
Drink it or serve it as the first course in a meal of dal, rice and side greens or stir fries. Enjoy!