Murungai Keerai Rasam: Moringa Leaves in a Spicy Sour Broth
Another day, another rasam? No? Well, I grew up with rasam at least 2-3 times a week. Served either as a soup or tossed over rice, this much loved South Indian deliciousness has had place in our diet. With one or more seasonal ingredients, a handful of spices and any available souring agent, a pot of rasam (called chaaru in our house) was prepared readily. There's no dearth to how many varieties that are possible, but the moringa leaves rasam somehow struck a chord with me.
Have you ever been obsessed with an ingredient? So much that you would leave no stone unturned until you cook it in all the ways you love? Ever since we moved from Toronto to Whitehorse, and peculiar Indian produce became hard to find, I've seen this obsession grow in me, and stronger. So when I spot something that I usually don't get in the markets here, I get a a big lot and make everything that I know with it. Moringa leaves are one of those things that I had never expected to find here.
Whitehorse has been surprising me, and how! On the weekend grocery run, I witnessed moringa leaves yet again! The first time I had found them, they were sitting pretty on the shelves (labelled mallungay leaves, product of Vietnam) where I usually find curry leaves. After getting lost in musings on food parallelism, I had brought them home and made a lovely sahajan ka saag (moringa leaves stir fry). The blog on it is due — noted!
Rasam: what does it mean?
This time I made a rasam. The word rasam refers to a category of soups in the South Indian cuisine although variants like saar and chaar exist somewhat farther in the north as well. The Charaka Samhita describes the Sanskrit word, rasa as "Rasyate aswadhyate rasanyaha rasendriyana eti rasa" which means the particular sense which is perceived by the tongue. So rasa is the special sense experienced through the tongue, the rasendriya, and the taste buds. Deriving from rasa, a rasam or the soupy dish brings forth a sensory experience of the constituent substances. Apart from the many medicinal benefits that a rasm encompasses, at its best, it's a serialized eulogy to the six basic tastes or shadrasas as defined by Ayurveda: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent.
Cultural anthropologist, Deepa Reddy, provides a much beautiful and more elaborate exposition on this theory in her magical blog, Paticheri. And, there's more: What is rasam?
Making a rasam, albeit uncomplicated, is an art of harmonizing flavours at its core. I laid out an anatomy of sorts in an earlier post to help you understand the layers of a rasam that lend a certain depth and character to this mysterious broth of South India.
Coming to moringa leaves. If I have to describe the benefits of this wonder plant, I rather point you to Pink Lemon Tree, where Shanthini Rajkumar explains how moringa is a chockful of nutrients. Everything of the plant is useful, and the leaves especially are a joy when it comes to cooking. You needn't go into the trouble of making a powder (I know it's a thing in the west). They're good as is whether added to a rasam, sambar or dal or simply stir fried.
Rasam as a home remedy
Spring is in the offing and the continuous ups and downs of temperatures always throw me in turbulent seas! I come from a country where mothers and grandparents are the doctors-on-call at home. An Indian kitchen is nothing short of an apothecary — something along these lines is what Deepa once said. The moment any family member experiences an ailment, the first instinct in an Indian household is to resort to the rasvati — Sanskrit for kitchen — and bring out the pestle and mortar and the pots and pans, forage cupboards for bottles of spices or go scouting in the backyard for herbs. In few moments of pounding, crushing, stirring or boiling, a remedy will be presented to the unwell and peace would be restored, at least until the actual doctor is consulted!
Although rasams are not primarily medicines, in my family (and I'm sure in many others) they're treated as such, and quite seriously. Sipping a bowl of rasam (or eating honey and peppercorn soaked ginger) when you're sick is no laughing matter in my house, and to a large extent it serves its purpose. Drink a bowl of hot rasam when you have a bad cold and you'll never regret! The seasonings are a treat for the olfactory tract, opening up clogged sinuses, providing relief in an instant. You repeat the bowls in some intervals, and your meal and medicine are done at once.
Growing up with such practices at home, which can seem as sorcery to many, I'm conditioned to look for ingredients in the kitchen that can provide relief in the time of sickness. And, even when I'm fully hail and hearty, it's the kitchen again and the makings in it that nurture the body and provide the much needed immunity in my family. With fresh moringa leaves and a load of good tomatoes in the fridge, it had to be a moringa leaves rasam for my weary soul today.
Moinga Leaves Rasam: How it came to my family?
Rasams in my parents' house are called chaaru in the southern part of Odisha, a direct adaption of the Andhra word and dish. Needless to say it's a south Indian influence. But this rasam is quite different from our usual chaaru. How this recipe landed in my mother's kitchen is somewhat up in the air. My father has a bosom friend, Uncle C, whose family hails from both sides of the border between Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. He also happens to be an avid cook, and many rasams and chaarus have found their way to ours from his. On the home front, my maternal grandmother has many (read many many) Andhra acquaintances, and she being from Berhampur, undoubtedly has a lot of Telugu influence on her food. Somewhere amidst these amalgamations and cultural exchanges, this murungai keerai rasam was recreated in my mother's kitchen and became a family favourite.
Our chaarus are usually clear soups with no use of dals whatsoever. This recipe is a clear divergence from that, and yet not a manifestation of an authentic Tamil rasam or perhaps it is! Hard to say because a lot of different recipes exist for the very same rasam.
While there's no standard rasam/chaaru podi that we use, this recipe seems to inculcate the idea. It brings together coriander, cumin, peppercorns, mustard and tur dal for the podi which are ground with tomatoes, garlic and ginger. A bit of coriander leaves are also added and the paste is rendered coarse, not fine.
In my mother's crude way, the tomatoes must be crushed with hands (remember hands also render flavour), the spices and dal ground separately, and the ginger, garlic and coriander leaves pounded separately as well. All the three are then brought together and mixed in a bowl. The moringa leaves are cleaned and washed and allowed to boil with a cup of water taking care to not overcook them. A 5-7 minutes is good enough.
For the tempering, mustard seeds, dry red chilies and asafoetida are used, generating a pungent aroma. The tomato and spice mixture is cooked in this tempering for a couple of minutes before adding the boiled moringa leaves along with water extracted from a blob of tamarind. Salt and turmeric are also added of course. The entire concoction is allowed to simmer, bubbling away for a couple of minutes and then served hot.
Thelivu Rasams, but this one is not
While many rasams are clear soups, better described as thelivu in Tamil, like the moola chaaru from Odisha, there's a distinct category of rasams which come with enough residue of the broth. This murungai keerai rasam also falls in this category, or at least the way it's made in my home, it's never a clear soup. There's ample residue of the ground dal, hand crushed tomatoes and other ingredients, and we relish it, wiping every morsel of rice with it, munching on some roasted papads on the side. The rice is not mandatory though. This rasam can be had as a soup as well if you don't mind the residue!
Overcooking moringa leaves is a strict no-no! A gentle boil and then a simmer later is enough. The entire cooking process should not take more than 20 minutes.
Ensure that you don't miss any of the spices for they are key to the flavour balance and distinct characteristic of the rasam.
1 bunch moringa leaves (1 to 1 & 1/2 cup)
For the dry masala (podi): 1 tbsp each of coriander seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns, pigeon pea (tur dal), 1 tsp mustard seeds and 1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
2 small tomatoes, washed and roughly crushed with hands
6-7 cloves of garlic
3-4 strands of coriander leaves and stems
1 tsp turmeric
1 lime sized ball of tamarind
For tempering: 1 tbsp oil, 1 tsp mustard seeds, 2 dry red chilies, 8-10 curry leaves 1/2 tsp asafoetida
1 tsp salt or to taste
In a bowl, pour water over the tamarid ball and keep aside.
Dry roast the ingredients mentioned for podi one by one, and then cool and grind to a coarse powder.
In a saucepan, add the moringa leave with 1 cup of water and boil for 5-7 minutes.
Meanwhile, pound the ginger, garlic and coriander leaves. Next, in a bowl mix the crushed tomatoes, ginger-garlic-coriander paste and spice powder using your hands.
Switch off the heat and keep the pan of boiled moringa leaves aside. Place another vessel on medium heat. Add oil and once hot, add the ingredients mentioned for seasoning - one by one.
Pour the paste made in step 4 and sauté it for a few seconds. Add turmeric and salt and cook for about a minute or two. Add the moringa leaves along with the water and let it simmer.
Extract the water from the tamarind and add the dark tangy water to the simmering broth. Stir and let it come to a roaring boil. Taste and check seasoning and adjust if required. Switch off the heat and serve hot.