What has mint and rasam got to do with Manali? A lot for me.
In May I stopped for a couple of days at Manali on my way back from the trek, before starting back for Delhi. Over the years I have become familiar with the town. Some of the local places I discovered with Kumkum during my first trip have now become regular haunts. Despite that, every year I find that Manali has something new to offer, making me feel that there is still a lot left to explore, in terms of local cuisine and culture. With each passing year I also notice how modernization has eroded tradition, and how the landscape is changing, how city culture and cuisine have quietly seeped into the lives of natives of Manali. I love that the town is getting cleaner, that the people are getting better facilities, but I am afraid that it won’t be long before Manali will lose the charm it holds for me.
So, when I went this year I resolved to explore as much of the town as a day and a half would allow me with two teens in tow. The first shop I headed to was the momo-lady’s shop in front of the Gumpa. It was no longer there. The kachha rooms had been pulled down and new buildings were being erected around the Gumpa. I asked for the momo-lady’s house, followed an address, but we could not track her. What made me sad was that I never even asked her name during the previous visits! She will forever remain etched in my memory as the ‘momo-lady’. In this nondescript shop I had spent quite a few afternoons and evenings feasting on freshly steamed momos straight out of the steamer, dipping them in a thin soup, and gulping them down in quick mouthfuls. I hope to meet her again and if I do I will learn and share with you, her story. Today I want to tell you about the tea-shop owner I met at Babeli.
I have found that the ladies in the Mountains present very strong persona, like the petite owner of a little tea-shop I visited. It had just two benches to seat visitors, and a taller one for chopping and cooking, and was located on the roadside, a little away from the others. I might have missed it but I was just plain lucky. I have had black tea at well known restaurants, tea-soirees, and many other tea-shops, but it is in this tea-shop that I have had the best ever black-tea. Someday, I will make it for you. The owner was a petite lady, thin and cheerful. Her eyes were welcoming. Talking to her, I learnt that she was also a part of the panchayat, the only female member of the local Government body. She did not have the air I have seen around local politicians in my city. She wore an old dress, clean but well-worn, had her hair tied at the back and secured with a head gear, a dupatta.
She served us tea and had something going in the steamer. She said it was ‘sidu’, a local steamed bun, stuffed with a traditional lentil paste or walnut paste. She served us some and told us to visit again the next day as she wanted me to taste the exotic version of sidu. We went back, as promised and the walnut stuffed buns were as exotic as she said it would be. She refused my pleas to accept payment. I knew she could do with some. She said she had invited us over as guests to show us some of Kullu’s cuisine, and that she was the host. We had another cup of black tea, before we left. It was aromatic, just rightly sweet, dilute and delicious. I asked her the secret of the delicious tea, and she said it was the mountain mint. I wanted some. Only the fresh ones would not last till Mumbai.
The mint available in the hills of Manali and beyond are huge compared to the ones I see in Mumbai. They grow bushy and the leaves are thrice the size of the mint we get here in Munmbai. They also smell strong. Here is a photograph from my files. Don’t the carrots look like midgets?
Our explorations in Manali this year led me to an upcoming mall in the center of the town. One of the shops called ‘Mountain Bounties’ had stocked predictable items like oils, salts, soaps and shampoos made with organic, natural ingredients. Looking around I found some packets of natural tea of all kinds. The one that caught my attention was ‘mint and rosehip’ tea. I did not ask for a sample. I just picked it up because I remembered the black tea at Babeli. I use it sparingly. It is precious.
It would have been just another day yesterday. It would have been the usual rasam. But, I began the morning with the mint and rosehip tea. Things took a turn. I had set the rasam to form a reduction on the other burner as I was making tea, and it was filling the room with a delicious tangy aroma. It struck me that I could add more divinity into it. The rosehips were already separated and lay in the bottom of the packet. And so happened this mint rasam. I will be making it again. And again. And I will remember that day at the little lady at the tea-shop in Babeli where I had the best ever tea of my life. I will remember along with her the many heroes I have met and been influenced. I hope to imbibe some of her grace and generosity of spirit.
Rasam, is a very aromatic appetizer, perhaps the most famous of all dishes that the Southern Region of India has to offer. Indian cuisine is region specific and the dishes vary with various regions. So we have the Kerala Rasam, the Udipi Rasam, the Mysore Rasam, the Tamilnadu Rasam, and of course the Tambrahm rasam. Needless to say, I like best the last. There are also variations depending on flavours and ingredients used to steep. Too many to be named here. The traditional flavours are jeera rasam, tomato rasam, molagu rasam (pepper rasam), lemon rasam and pineapple rasam. Other varieties have evolved since. What is common to all rasams is sourness. That could come from lemon, tamarind, kokum (in Mangalore) with some addition of tomatoes or tangy fruits. I am not very fond of the fruity overtones but I know it is a favourite among many. To each his own. So much to choose from.
The method followed is basically the same as for regular tomato rasam. Cook in the main ingredient (tomatoes, vegetables or fruits) in the sour water solution with spices and rasam powder to reduce well. Mash and thin down with water or lentil stock till a very thin soup is formed. Heat through and season. Simple. Right? Yet, the balance is not easy to achieve.
Tomatoes, each divided into 8 pieces – 4 medium sized
A lime sized lump of soft, organic, dark tamarind, soaked and juice extracted (1/2 cup) OR
Tamarind paste – 1 tbsp., diluted with half cup water
Rasam powder (if using off the shelf I recommend 777 brand) – 2 tbsps.
Water (for the lentil stock) – 4 cups
Split, husked, pigeon peas / tuvar dal – 1/2 cup
Salt to taste
Curry leaves – 1 sprig
Turmeric powder – 1/8 tsp. (I do not like it very yellow)
Asafoetida powder – 1/8 tsp. (If strong use a pinch)
Red chilli powder – To taste (I do not use much, maybe 1/2 tsp.)
Sesame oil (not toasted) – 1 tsp.
Mustard seeds – 1 tsp.
Fenugreek seeds – 1/8 tsp.
Fresh curry leaves – 1 sprig
Dried, organic, mint leaves – 2 tsps. (I used strong mint leaves from mint and rosehip tea)
Cook the lentils with enough water. Let cool till good to handle. Mash and add a cup of water. Mix and put through a soup strainer to filter the lentil stock. Add another cup of water to the residual solids. Pressing with your hands or a spoon extract as much of the stock as possible and filter again. Repeat till you are left with only a tablespoon or so of the solids. You should have got about 3 cups of lentil stock at this point, maybe a little more.
Set the stock aside till needed.
In a heavy base steel vessel, add tomatoes, curry leaves, tamarind extract, turmeric, asafoetida, red chilli powder and salt to taste. Boil and reduce on low heat to form a thick infusion, about 10-15 minutes . Mash with a masher or the back of a ladle against the sides of the vessel to slightly crush the tomatoes.
Add the lentil stock, and the dried mint leaves. The volume of the rasam should be nearly a litre now. If thick, add more water and bring it to the consistency of a thin broth. Mix well with a ladle and place on heat.
As soon as you see a layer of froth forming on the surface, remove from heat. Mix well.
Place a heavy pan or seasoning wok on fire. When heated through, add oil. When warm add mustard seeds to crackle, followed by other seasoning ingredients. Pour into the rasam. The longer you keep the more the mint will steep and make it aromatic.
Yes, it is almost the same as tomato rasam, but it has its identity.