Thili Saaru (Lentil and tomato broth)
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
Every community has its own food specialties and the Madhwa Brahmin community boasts of thili saaru, which is pigeon pea (toor dal) and tomato broth flavoured with intricately measured and elaborately prepared saarina pudi (rasam powder or the masala powder). There are two elements that distinguishes our saaru from others - one is of course the rasam powder and the other one is the usage of jaggery. As my maternal grandfather used to say, the balance between uppu (salt), huli (sour/tang), khaara (spice/heat) and bella (sweetness) decides the outcome of the dish. Any excess or lack in these elements in a dish results in the failure of the dish.
Every family has its own saarina pudi recipe, and the below mentioned recipe is mine . I've experimented with four different proportions before landing on the perfect one (read notes to see the changes I've made). I did not like the other ones because of the strong flavour imparted by coriander seeds, hence I have majorly altered the measurements.
Cup measurements used - Standard 1 cup = 240 ml
The Saarina pudi recipe yields 4 tbsp Rasam powder
The rasam recipe serves 3 (the recipe calls for only 1 tbsp of rasam powder. the rest can be stored for future use)
For Saarina pudi (Rasam Powder)
Coriander seeds 1 tbsp
Cumin seeds 1 tbsp
Kashmiri red chilli powder 1 tbsp
Mustard seeds 1/4 tsp
Fenugreek seeds 1/4 tsp
Black peppercorns 12
Asafetida 1/4 tsp
Pigeon pea (toor dal) 1/4 cup
Chopped tomato 1/2 cup
Saarina pudi 1 tbsp
Jaggery 1.5 tbsp
Salt 2 tsp
Tamarind 2 tsp
Turmeric 1/4 tsp
Oil 1 tbsp
Mustard seeds 1/4 tsp
Cumin 1/4 tsp
A pinch of asafetida
A sprig of curry leaves
For saarina pudi (rasam powder):
In a wok, dry roast all the ingredients (except chilli powder) on a low flame. Keep a close eye as the spices tend to burn easily. Stir the spices constantly and roast it well for about 5-7 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the chilli powder and let it cool. Once completely cooled, transfer the spices to a dry grinder jar and grind it to a very fine powder.
Soak dal in 1.5 cups of water for at least an hour. Once the dal doubles in size, do not drain the water and add tomatoes and turmeric and pressure cook it for 4 whistles (the dal has to become mushy). Meanwhile, soak 2 teaspoons of tamarind in 4 tablespoons of water and let it soak for at least 10 minutes. Extract the tamarind juice by squeezing the pulp and keep it ready. Once the dal is cooked mash it to make pasty, transfer it to a pot and boil it on a medium flame along with the tamarind extract and 2 more cups of water (saaru is supposed to be very runny and not thick). Next, add salt, rasam powder and jaggery and boil it for around 10-12 minutes till the dal and water blends well. Turn off the heat and prepare the tempering by heating oil in a small wok and splutter mustard, cumin, asafetida, and curry leaves. Slowly add the tempering to the rasam and garnish it with chopped coriander. Serve rasam hot with rice and ghee or as a starter drink (you may call it soup, but I won't - saaru can't be compared to soup 😁).
The traditional recipe calls for 4:1 proportion of coriander seeds to cumin seeds. But I really do not like the overpowering taste of coriander seeds and 1:1 works perfectly. This proportion tastes very much like the ones served at weddings.
The original recipe also calls for the use of Byadgi red chilli. In many cases, Byadgi and Guntur varieties are used in equal proportions since the former imparts heat and the latter imparts good colour. But I've used neither of these and choses the very safe Kashmiri chilli variety. It is very mild, yet very flavourful and the colour it adds to the saaru is unmatchable!
Most of those who prepare rasam powder at home dry roast all the ingredients separately and they swear that it makes a difference. Might be true, but to save time and efforts, I roast them all together - except chilli powder, since it tends to burn easily.
Don't be shy to use jaggery! I know many of you do not regularly use jaggery in daily cooking, but trust me, this is the one ingredient that makes all the difference.