Rasbhari Rasam: Cape Gooseberries in a Tangy Soup
I'm the kind of people who usually eat fruit as it is. The surplus, if any, makes its way to preserves or desserts, and something like a pulissery or fajeto at times. This summer, it was rasbhari, cape gooseberry, and for the first time I made a rasam out of it. I wanted something beyond my usual chutney, pie and salad. You will find them here and the recipe of the chutney here. For the rasam, I'd like to give you a bit of backstory first.
My memories of cape gooseberries are minimal but conspicuous, and my fascination for them, ever perpetual. Adorned with their natural delicate wings, these gooseberries are native to Peru, and I talk more about their origins in the chutney post. This post is centered around their taste, the juice or the essence they hold, their rasa, the extract and flavour as the Rig Veda describes rasa.
I mentioned I rarely make a rasam, a tangy sour toned soup or broth, from fruits. It's because when a fruit is that delicious such as a cape gooseberry (and so easy to pop into the mouth), then why change anything about it? But, with a surplus at hand, it struck me. It was in the name: Ras-bhari Ras-am. I had to delve into the rasa between the two.
A few days back, Deepa, my rasam guru and inspiration to go beyond the face value of rasam, who also pens her many sorceries at Paticheri, shared her thoughts about the correlation of Natya Shastra's rasa theory to culinary offerings through the medium of rasa vadai. This drew me closer to the 'experience' that rasa is deemed to be.
While the Rig Veda relates rasa to seasoning or flavour, relating it to soma or life juice, cow's milk or water, the Atharva Veda expanded its meaning to include taste. The Upanishads further added the symbolic perspective of essence to the concrete meanings of rasa. Natya Shastra, elevates the concept of rasa to a whole new level, weaving bhava (an emotional state or mood) and rasa (the sentiment that the demonstrator of bhava manifests) to create the rasa theory which is so central to Indian aesthetics including all forms of art.
According to Bharata, the actor-dancer should be able to elicit the rasa experience in the audience through the stahyi bhava or permanent emotion, which is supported by the determinants (vibhava) and stimulants (anubhava). These are further elaborated upon through different transitory states of mind.
Considering everything is in sync and the act is rendered alright, the spectator receives these emotions which awake specific sentiments in the spectator's mind. However, what's worth noting is that everyone may not be able to experience this. To be able to recognize or receive the rasa, meaning experience the aesthetic rendering, or the essence, the spectator should be a rasika, someone who is sensitive to artistic experiences. In terms of food, think about the taster. Not everyone tastes the same food in the same ways. What's salty for me could be perfect for someone else. The rasa theory underlines the significance or success of the experience on the spectator as much as the demonstrator or creator. How much of it can we equalize when we think about the food we cook and serve to others or vice versa?
But before that, let's look at how the rasa theory describes the final outcome of an aesthetic or artistic experience. The rasanubhuti or experiencing the essence, is further expounded as a total transformation of the small and individual into the vast and divine. Tapasvi Nandi rounds this up in his research paper, Rasa-Theory: A Catholic Application, "In short, this theory of art sets itself to explain an experience, involving total personality of the enjoyer including the intellectual, it is a take off from the earth and landing into the Divine; it is a flight from the region of 'the earth earthy' to the region of 'the air airy'; it is a growing of the corporeal 'I' into the cosmic consciousness 'I'."
Moving into the aspect of rasa and its connection to a state which is unworldly, I find Richard Shusterman's insights on rasa and the delight of aesthetic experience in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, very interesting.
Rasa, the essence or the experience from an artistic offering, which can also include food although cooking need not necessarily be thought as an art form, is often described as 'alaukika', extraordinary, away from our familiar world. Shusterman points out that the ultimate rasa though described as non-ordinary is an intensification, refinement and reshaping of our everyday feelings from our ordinary life. His pragmatic approach to art celebrates the values of experience, affect, and pleasure while insisting that aesthetic pleasures can also be earthy and sensual, closely relating our worldly existence and exigencies.
This Rasbhari Rasam draws closely on pragmatism, or what Shusterman refers as pragmatic aesthetics, where rasa is not transcendental but related to our worldly needs — managing surplus cape gooseberries in my case—and appetites. When applied to our everyday culinary practices, this seems logical. No? Now going back to the question about the significance of the taster or the person who eats the food, pragmatism answers much of it. We're not always seeking unusually enhanced flavours or praises from people who eat our food, although these are all complimentary outcomes. More often than not, we're also seeking ways to utilize ingredients and appease our needs in the kitchen or just our frame of mind on the day, a sense of fulfillment which I feel is a rasa in its own regard.
As far as this rasam, it was delicious, flavourful-much! Made in a similar way as the thakkali (tomato) rasams bereft of podis, tempered with the usual mustard seeds, curry leaves, dry red chilies, it had a sweet-tart profile and left me with a feeling of wanting more—that I wasn't expecting—while satiating those taste buds and olfactory senses. That last bit is what truly makes it a rasam as the #rasamseries has taught me and also ties it to rasa theory's 'alaukika' perhaps.
So, it's not just in the name after all. Ras-bhari Ras-am goes deeper into the realms of extracting the juice from our usual summer gooseberries, finding ways to apply same old techniques to new ingredients and discovering flavour contours in our mundane foods. Yes, rasam is run-of-the-mill like the humdrums of #rozkakhana which subtly aligns with the theory of rasa and evokes that indescribable feeling at the end of a meal.
For the herb and spice blend:
⅓ cup coriander with both stems and leaves
7 to 8 garlic cloves
2 tsp cumin seeds
¼ tsp black peppercorns
For cape gooseberry puree:
1 and 1/2 cup - 2 cups of cape gooseberries, wings removed and washed
For the rasam:
1 tbsp oil (untoasted sesame seed oil or peanut oil or sunflower oil)
½ tsp black mustard seeds
½ tsp husked, split or whole urad dal
1 - 2 dry red chillies
1 generous pinch of asafoetida (heeng)
1 sprig of curry leaves
¼ tsp turmeric powder
1 and 1/2 tsp salt or as needed
1-2 cups water or add as required
2 tbsp chopped coriander leaves
Take all ingredients mentioned under the herb and spice mix in a blender and make a paste. Keep aside.
Crush the washed cape gooseberries in a bowl using clean hands making a coarse paste or make a paste in the blender. I like the texture of hand-crushed tomatoes and berries in rasam but you may use the blender if you prefer that.
Heat oil in a pot and add the mustard seeds. Let them crackle and then add urad dal. Keep stirring until the dal changes colour taking care to not burn them. Now add the dry red chilies and asafoetida. Stir and let the chilies change colour and then add the herb and spice paste along with curry leaves. Note: Maintain low to medium heat. If you feel things are burning, switch off the heat for a while!
Sauté until you can smell the fragrance! Add turmeric and stir to combine. Now add the cape gooseberry paste and sauté for about a minute. Add water and then add salt. You may add more water, but too much water may dilute the flavours. So judge accordingly!
Mix and wait until the rasam comes to a boil on a medium-low heat. Let it simmer for about 10 minutes. Switch off the heat and taste. Add more salt if needed and stir again. Sprinkle chopped coriander leaves and serve hot with rice or drink as is!