On Rasam and Identity

Rasam is the answer to everything, or so I was told during my middle-class vegetarian Tamil brahmin upbringing.
India, South Asia

Story by Janani Padmanabhan. Edited by Mikael Ahrari
Published on May 16, 2022. Reading time: 5 minutes



Tamarind. Turmeric. Tomato. Toor dal: The four Ts that go into the hot panacea of a potion that is rasam. A fellow Tamilian would look at this and vigorously point out that it should include pepper and cumin, to which I graciously give in. Rasam (originally from the Sanskrit work ‘rasa’ meaning ‘juice’) is usually poured over hot rice with a dollop of ghee, after which the concerned eater must immediately go through the finger-burning ordeal of mashing up and incorporating the hot rice with the thin, soup-like rasam with their hands. 


Rasam is the answer to everything, or so I was told during my middle-class vegetarian Tamil brahmin upbringing. 

It’s a food that makes for a meal for any context. Toddler who can’t chew? Down with a cold or an upset tummy? Short of ingredients in your pantry? Rasam is the answer to everything, or so I was told during my middle-class vegetarian Tamil brahmin upbringing. 

How do I feel about rasam? While I do have a nostalgic fondness for it, it isn’t my go-to on an average day, mostly because it isn’t particularly quick, filling, or nutritionally dense by itself. Beyond that, the meaning this dish (and many others in my local cuisine) projects into my existence and privilege has made me disassociate from it to a considerable degree. I seek to further examine these convoluted feelings on rasam through the lens of caste, social meaning and power, in the remainder of this piece.

To begin with, I must acknowledge that while the origin stories of rasam are apocryphal, there seems to be a common tale passed around that attributes the creation back to an ancient folktale. The story goes like this: In 16th century Madurai, a town in present-day Tamil Nadu, there was a ruler whose son happened to fall sick and could not be cured by the ordinary healers. The ruler sought out all the medicinal experts in the land.  A priest (also referred to as a Brahman, according to his caste status) came around with this spice-laden potion, which cured the prince.      


Did we eat rasam rice 3-4 times a week in the comfort of a story that provides us internalized superiority over others? 

This folktale seems to resemble a lot of other Indian lore from around this period, which glorify the heroics of upper-caste men in settings of intellectual and/or royal demand. This origin story leads me to question my and my broader community’s high regard for rasam, as belonging to the upper-caste and being systemically privileged ourselves. Did we eat rasam rice 3-4 times a week in the comfort of a story that provides us internalized superiority over others? 

This would be a difficult answer to procure candidly through conversation. Much of popular Indian folklore (and arguably present-day politics) is tainted with the crediting of achievements to upper-caste folk, consequently overshadowing and misrepresenting other ‘lower’-caste communities, particularly Dalits. Diets are another way to reinforce this power structure. Vegetarianism among Indians is inherently tied to upper-caste/brahminism and corresponding notions of purity related to consuming meat that disregard and look down upon communities that don’t follow the same. In this way, food social scientist Claude Fischler’s idea of incorporation – the idea that organisms, especially humans, deliberately eat or intake what represents their beliefs and social existences outwardly – holds true based on the hierarchies that diet choices have created in Indian society.

Whether the folktale holds true, rasam is now a food of the commons in Tamil Nadu and South India, given the accessibility of its ingredients, short preparation time, and its status in the Tamil community as a superfood of sorts. And while I crave and relish the comfort of rasam rice at occasional moments of homesickness, it comes with the associated discomfort of knowing the proximity at which my cravings and social class lie. 


References

Shanker, R. (2017, November 19). Rasam, a taste of history and tradition. DT NEXT. Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://www.dtnext.in/Lifestyle/Food/2017/11/18235008/1052610/Rasam-a-taste-of-history-and-tradition.vpf

Fischler, C. (1988). Food, self and identity. Social Science Information, 27(2), 275–292. https://doi.org/10.1177/053901888027002005 

Devarajan, A., & Mohanmarugaraja, M. K. (2017). A Comprehensive Review on Rasam: A South Indian Traditional Functional Food. NCBI. Published. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5628526/ 


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Editorial

Food is a deeply cultural thing. If you enjoyed learning more about Janani's upper-caste Tamil Brahmin upbringing and its connection to Raman, we'd suggest you read Zhihao's story next: they write about the rice dish Ban and how it ties in with their Hakka identity. Or check out Neya's story about hosting themed dinner parties to stay connected during the COVID pandemic in the UK.

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Janani Padmanabhan

Janani Padmanabhan

Janani is an intersectional feminist and food enthusiast from India, currently residing in Berlin. She is deeply passionate about equality and safety for marginalized persons everywhere, and spends most of her time thinking about and working towards it. She is also a Master’s student at a public policy school in Berlin.

In her free time, Janani likes to experiment with food, volunteer, climb boulders and learn the guitar. She enjoys meeting new people and hearing their stories, and can be reachable via [email protected].

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