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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

(Editor’s Note: A version of this article was published in the June 2002 issue ofIndia Currents. It is updated and reprinted here due to popular demand by our readers.)


Last evening I was busy as usual, cooking and watching BBC news.

As I added rasam powder to a boiling pot of dal, the smell of rasam brought back memories of a dear lady. Auntie, as I lovingly called her, was 72 years old when she immigrated to the United States to be with her family 17 years ago. She lived with her son’s family, on our street. A petite woman, with impeccable posture that defied age, Auntie was always elegantly dressed in silk saris, her long white hair neatly tied into a bun, and the sparkle in her eyes outshining the sparkle from her diamond earrings and nose ring.

I enjoyed talking with Auntie as she always had a very unique perspective on life and a humble approach to all the events happening around her. On any happy occasion she would say, “It is the grace of god,” and for any difficult or challenging times she would say, “God is trying to test me!”

To me she was a friend, a confidante, a mother, and a mother-in-law all rolled into one.

I would make it a point to visit her every week. Sometimes I would have lunch with her, or take her to the library; other times we would check out the new Indian restaurant that had opened in the neighborhood. At times I would be busy or lazy and not see her for weeks. She would smile and just say, “You must have been very busy,” but she never complained.

Auntie had this unique capacity to influence you with her wisdom without ever lecturing. When my son was in kindergarten, I would walk with him to school every day. It was a five-minute walk, with a busy street to cross before reaching school.

She often joined me in this morning ritual and observed that I always held on to his hand until he entered the classroom.

After a couple of months, she casually mentioned, “Hema, raising a kid is basically letting go, slowly but steadily.”

She continued: “Start with the first step of letting him walk to school by himself. Give him the confidence that he can walk to school by himself. At first you can wait on one side of the busy street, ask him to look both sides, and let him decide when to cross the street. As a parent you teach and then step aside and watch.”

A valuable lesson for every parent.

Auntie had a pet peeve. She detested when her friends would harp only about the past events in their lives. She had nicknamed that the “past disease.” She felt that constant talk of the past just wasted away the present time. “Live in the present” was her motto.

“What is the secret of your good health and cheerful attitude?” I would often ask.

Auntie would raise her hands to the sky and say, “It is all the grace of God.”

One day, I stumbled upon her secret. It was none other than “The Rasam Power.” Rain or shine, 365 days of the year, Auntie would have rasam with her meals.

I always felt that Auntie’s rasam was not only the perfect medicine for a sniffle, cold, cough, or flu, but it also did wonders for uplifting moods!

Her rasam was nurturing, wholesome, and soul satisfying.

On December 2, 2001, Auntie passed away at the age of 82. Her name was Sharda Murthy—better known as Aditi’s Avva, or Ram’s mother, or Sheila’s mother-in-law.

To this day when I make rasam, my eyes well up with thoughts and memories of special times with a special person.
The Mystical Rasam
Here is my version of Auntie’s favorite rasam. The freshly roasted and ground cumin and black pepper transform any rasam into rasam extraordiniare.
1 cup cooked toor dal

6 cups water

1 can tomato puree

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon rasam powder(store bought or homemade)

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

¼ teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon ghee or oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

¼ teaspoon fenugreek seed

6-8 curry leaves

¼ teaspoon hing (asfoetida)

Salt to taste

1 teaspoon cilantro, chopped for garnish

In a big pot, add toor dal, water, tomato puree, and tomato paste and boil vigorously for 5 minutes.

Roast cumin seeds and black pepper for a couple minutes until an aroma is released. Grind to a fine powder.

Add the rasam powder to the freshly ground cumin and black pepper.

In a small pot, heat ghee or oil, add mustard seeds, and hear them pop. Add fenugreek seeds and curry leaves and stir. Finally, add the hing and remove from heat. Add this spice infused oil to the boiling pot and serve immediately with cilantro garnish.

Hema’s Hints: When you are coming down with cold cough or flu, this spicy broth works wonders to relieve the misery.
Crunchy Koshimbiri
Auntie often made this salad, which had a great fusion of texture, flavor, and color.

1 cup mung dal

1 carrot, grated

1 onion, diced

1 cucumber, diced

½ cup cilantro, chopped

1 tablespoon coconut (optional)

1 teaspoon oil

½ teaspoon mustard seeds

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

a pinch of hing (asfoetida)

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 teaspoon salt (or as per taste)

½ teaspoon sugar

Soak mung dal for 3-4 hours in water.

Drain off the water and keep aside.

In a bowl, place the soaked mung dal, carrots, onion, cucumber, cilantro, and coconut.

In a small pan, heat oil and throw in the mustard seeds. Wait until it pops and add cumin seeds.

Finally, add the hing and remove from heat. Mix this spice infused oil to the salad and add salt, lime juice, and sugar. Mix well and serve immediately.

Hema’s Hints: I often add chopped Granny Smith apples to this salad.
Every Thursday, Auntie would make this soothing kitchadi before her Gita class. It was a fragrant, creamy combination of moong dal and rice with a little seasoning of cumin and black pepper.
1 cup rice

¾ cup moong dal

1 teaspoon salt (or as per taste)

6 cups water

1 tablespoon Ghee

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon black pepper (whole)

Wash dal and rice and keep aside to drain.

In a thick bottomed pan, add water, the rice-dal mix, and salt, and bring it to a rapid boil. Cook on high heat for 5 minutes without any lid.

Lower heat and cover the pan with a lid.

Cook on very low heat for 30 minutes.

In a small pan, heat ghee and add cumin seeds; wait until it sizzles. Add whole black pepper and sauté for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and pour over the rice. Stir the kitchadi with a spoon for 3-4 minutes.

The kitchadi becomes like a soft creamy porridge.

Hema Hints: For a nutrition boost, I like to add chopped carrots to the kitchadi. 

Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of the television show Indian Vegetarian Gourmet (DVDs now available at the Sunnyvale and Cupertino libraries in Northern California). Visit her website at