It is difficult to define a rasam. As soon as you try you will find examples that break those rules. It has toor dal – but not every time – and tomatoes as a base – but not every time. It is strong on coriander and pepper and chillies – but not every time.
Rasam means juice, and some say it refers to the juice of the tamarind, on which a rasam is based – but not every time. It also means essence, and this is the fundamental tangy essence of the ingredients.
For example, Pepper Rasam is made without rasam powder. Gottu Rasam is made without toor dal. Beautiful Lemon Rasam is made without tamarind. And to top it all, Paneer Rasam is made without paneer, is served exclusively at weddings, and is made of rose petals.
Often in current times rasam and sambar powder are used almost interchangeably, but traditionally it wasn’t so.
Categorising Rasam Powders
None, Raw, Roasted Powder or Fried
Powders use either raw spices or roasted or fried spices.
- No Rasam Powder – many recipes, especially traditional ones, select and treat spices (roast or not, grind to a powder or not) especially selected for the particular recipe.
- Raw Rasam Powders – spices are ground together without roasting or frying. The powder is roasted or fried with ghee before using in the rasam. If the raw powder is added directly to the rasam it is usually cooked for longer to cook out the raw spices.
- Roasted or Fried Rasam Powders – the spices are fried in oil, roasted on a hot dry tawa, or set in the hot sun for some hours before grinding. The powder is added directly to the rasam.
Basic or Complex
Another way of classifying the rasam powders is the inclusion of spices:
- A Basic Powder of Chillies, Pepper and Coriander – toor dal might be included or not. This powder allows the most spice variation when used in recipes. – other spices such as cumin, turmeric etc can be added separately to the rasam as preferred. The only variation in this spice mix is the ratio of ingredients used to make the powder.
- More Complex Rasam Powders – other spices such as cumin are added to a basic mix before grinding. This allows for less variation in spices when making rasam.
Toor Dal or Not
There is variation in the use of Toor Dal in rasam powder:
- Does Not Contain Toor Dal – toor dal does not always form part of the base of a rasam powder. The rasam itself can also contain toor dal, or not.
- Contains Toor Dal – in varying amounts from a teaspoon to a cup or more. are ground and added to large batches of rasam powder.
- Small amounts are used for flavouring and a little thickening of the rasam.
- Large amounts are used to replace the toor dal in the rasam base, adding the texture and flavour of the toor dal to the rasam without the necessity to pre-cook the dal. Note that when using such mixes, more of the powder is added to the rasam. For example, if you add a teaspoon of powders without large amounts of toor dal, you might add several tablespoons of powder with large amounts of toor dal.
The dal is usually roasted before grinding to a powder and mixing with the other rasam powder ingredients.
It is helpful to know if you are using a powder with large amounts of toor dal, and if that is the type your recipe requires, because it determines how much powder you will use and the final texture and flavour of the rasam.
There are as many rasam powder recipes as there are stars in the sky. Start simple, and explore spice combinations until you find the ratios that make sense for you.
Rasam Powder Recipes
I had always used one or the other of these first rasam powders, to great effect when making rasam. I have lost their origin, they were possibly given to me at some stage in my early exploration of Indian cooking and/or spices.
The first includes considerable amounts of toor dal in the mix, so there is less need to use toor dal in the rasam itself.
Roasted Indian Rasam Powder
½ cup toor dal (split pigeon peas)
8-10 fresh curry leaves
2 tspn black mustard seeds
2 Tblspn cumin seeds
3 Tblspn coriander seeds
½ tspn fenugreek seeds
½ Tblspn black peppercorns
1 tspn red chilli powder, to taste
1 tspn turmeric
pinch of asafoetida
Dry roast each ingredient individually, let cool and grind to a fine powder. Store in the pantry for up to 1 month and in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
The second recipe is more general, and makes about 500g of rasam powder. Again, the ingredients are dry roasted before grinding. When you make the rasam you can use toor dal or toor dal essence (the top water when cooking toor dal) to make the rasam. A general recipe follows and you can find others here.
General Roasted Rasam Powder
400g whole coriander seed
40g whole dried red chillies
40 g cumin seeds
10 g black mustard seeds
15 g black peppercorns
20 g fresh curry leaves
5 g asafoetida
Dry roast all the ingredients individually and allow to cool. Mix well and store in an airtight container. Grind when needed.
Meenakshi Ammal in her books Cook and See has recipes for rasam powder. The amounts used are likely to have budding Indian cooks from the West shudder, but remember that rasam and sambar are daily items on every household’s menu. You can adjust ratios to suit your needs. Keep the powder in the fridge for longer life.
Her roasted powder is heavy on coriander, chilli and pepper corns, and the chillies are sauteed in ghee before grinding.
Meenakshi Ammal’s Roasted Rasam Powder
8 cups of dried red chillies
3 cups coriander seed
0.5 cup toor dal
0.5 cups pepper corns
4 – 6 tspns ghee
Fry the red chillies in oil for a while. Grind them by hand or in a spice grinder or food processor until they form a smooth powder.
Amma recommends drying the coriander, pepper and dal in the sun. I toss them quickly and individually in a dry hot pan – enough to dry them out and until they begin to omit a spicy aroma. Grind each one to a powder. If the coriander seed does not make a smooth powder, rub it through a sieve.
Mix the powders together. When using, because the chillies are fried, there is no need to boil the rasam as long after adding the powder to it. With a raw rasam powder, you would cook it longer.
recipe notes and alternatives
You can add turmeric to give a nice colour to the powder. Use 20 g of turmeric root and grind with the coriander seed, or use 20 g turmeric powder and mix with the other powders.
This powder should only be used for rasam, and not for sambar.
Adjust the ratios of the ingredients to your taste. These days the amount of chillies and pepper corns would be less.
Alternative Roasted Rasam Powder
Gopium has an amusing way of describing another version of roasted rasam powder, as follows:
Take about 15 red chillies, remove the stalks, dab some cooking oil over them, and dry fry over a low flame till they puff up with self importance every so slightly.
Now dry roast 4 Tblspn coriander seeds, 2 Tblspn channa ka daal, and 2 Tblspn urad dal, till the urad turns golden.
Finally, dry roast 1 Tblspn tuvar dal, 1 Tblspn whole black pepper, and 1 Tblspn cumin seeds, till the black pepper begins crackling with excitement.
Grind these to a coarse powder.
Udupi Rasam Powder
Dry roast separately and grind to a powder: 7 red chillies, 0.5 cup coriander seeds, 0.25 cup cumin seeds, 0.5 Tblspn fenugreek seeds, 0.25 tspn asafoetida, 10 curry leaves, 1 tspn brown mustard seeds, 2 tspn black pepper. Grind with 0.5 tspn turmeric powder.
General Rasam Recipe
Once you have a Rasam powder mixture, cook 125 g Toor dal in 1L water with 0.5 tspn of turmeric and 1 tspn ghee. Add tamarind water or lime juice with some salt and a small lump of jaggery to taste. Add 3 tspns of rasam powder. Cook over low flame for 10 minutes. Pop black mustard seeds in ghee, and add curry leaves and a pinch asafoetida powder. Add this tadka to the rasam. Sprinkle with coriander leaves.
Specific Rasam Recipes
You can find our Rasam recipes here.
From the A Note On Series
- Spices: A Note on Fenugreek
- Spices: A Note on Five Spice Powder
- Spices: A Note on Galangal (Greater Galangal, Thai Ginger).
- Spices: A Note on Garam Masala
- Ingredients: A Note on Garlic and Pickled Garlic
- Ingredients: A Small Note on Ghee
- Ingredients: Make Your Own Ghee
- Ingredients: A Note on Ginger and Pickled Ginger
- Food: A Note on Halva/Halwa
- Ingredients: What to do with Olives
- Spices: A Note on Kalonji (Charnushka)
- Ingredients: Make your own Crème Fraîche (Khatte Malai)