Recipes, Soup

Rasam: Spicy Indian Tomato Vegetable Soup


Rasam is a spicy South Indian soup with (often) a tomato base, tamarind, and peppers.  I first ran into this recipe in a translation of Rumi (the one in the picture above, The Essential Rumi translated by Coleman Barks).  Why are there recipes in a book of a Sufi mystic’s poetry?  Beats me.  The recipes are hidden away in the translator’s notes at the back, and all that Barks says by way of explanation is this:

“Rumi often speaks of the relationship between teacher and student as that between the cook and the chickpea in the pot.  ‘You think I’m torturing you.  I’m giving you flavour, so you can mix with rice and spices and be the lovely vitality of a human being.‘”

But I’m not mad about it.  I’d be just fine with stumbling on soup recipes in other works of literature too, really.  Barks’s recipe for rassum (as he spells it) is enormous—he says it “might be enough for 75 to 100 people”—so I’ve cut it down to a normal size and adapted it based on other recipes I’ve found.  Yummy Tummy Aarthi has a whole pile of rasam recipes and variations, all of which look delicious, and I’ve used her recipes as a guide.

WPA poster:
WPA poster, 1937

My problem was that I didn’t have tamarind paste, so I’ve compensated for it with lemon juice and brown sugar.  I wasn’t in the mood to make it intensely spicy so I also left out the green chili peppers that rasam usually includes.  My mom also has the gene that makes people hate cilantro so I replaced that with parsley.

So this isn’t a very traditional rasam, but it’s still good, warming and lively.

May or may not cure what ails you

Why am I making soup instead of latkes at this time of year?  Because of the plague.  My mom is sick as a dog with the flu (I call every sufficiently awful cold “the flu” in order to confer upon it the proper dignity that misery deserves) and I’m feeling it threaten me too.  Chicken soup is no longer on the menu, but this vegan soup is loaded with stuff to bust up a winter bug: garlic, ginger, turmeric, carrots and peppers, tomato.  The spices might help break up the congestion too, or at least make you feel like you can finally taste something again.

Barks describes rasam as a “very healing soup”, but I’m not sure I can think of a kind of soup that doesn’t heal in some way.  When I was still in university, a friend dropped by my apartment when I was sick to bring me a Mason jar of mushroom barley soup spiked up with curry powder.  For nausea or other digestion issues, I make a stracciatella soup from Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook, Roman egg drop soup with delicate, soothing textures and clean, bright flavours.  In Russia, when I was down with a case of whooping cough, I ordered borscht in practically every restaurant.  My father swore by an artery-clogging cockaleekie soup made with lots of butter and heavy cream.  Miso soup emanates health and good vibes.  And when I’ve just come from a grueling dentist appointment, sometimes all I can stand to eat is Campbell’s tomato.

Soup is what you have when you can’t stand to think of eating anything else.    It’s what you make for other people when there’s nothing else you can do to help.

Rasam: Spicy Indian Tomato Vegetable Soup
Recipe type: soup
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 4 servings
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
A healing, vigorously flavourful vegetable soup with a sweet-sour tang and a spicy kick.
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 1" knob ginger, sliced into matchsticks
  • 3 carrots, chopped
  • 2 bell peppers
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • ¼ cup red lentils
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds, ground
  • 1 tbsp fennel seeds, ground
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • ½ tsp dry mustard (or whole mustard seeds)
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp cayenne (or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp cloves, ground
  • 1 tsp green cardamom pods, ground
  • 1 tsp hot or smoky paprika
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 3 tbsp chopped parsley
  1. In a big soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat and add the onion and garlic.
  2. Add carrots and peppers once the onion is soft and the garlic is fragrant.
  3. In a cast iron skillet, heat the dry spices over medium heat until they take on a darker, roasted appearance. Add them to the pot.
  4. Add the ginger, lemon juice, brown sugar, and tomatoes, along with 28 ounces of water (fill up the now-emptied tomato can and add it to the pot).
  5. Add red lentils.
  6. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
  7. Keep it on low heat for about an hour and a half, or until the lentils and vegetables are done—the longer you can let it mellow the better.
  8. Add parsley a few minutes before you're ready to serve.


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