Heirloom Tomato Rasam (Saaru)

Growing up my mom would buy tomatoes from a local farmstand and I’d eat them whole just like fruit.  I love tomatoes so much, I sign up for an heirloom tomato share on top of my regular farmshare every year because it kills me that their season is so short. And now I’m so spoiled from it that I rarely buy a tomato from the supermarket on the off-season.  I just can’t bear the thought of paying for a waxy, mealy tomato after eating tomatoes like a queen in the summer that cost a lot less!


Heirloom tomatoes in particular are special because they’re grown from varieties of seeds that have been passed down for generations, some dating back even 100’s of years.  These tomatoes are the best tasting ones too because their seeds have not been modified to unnaturally last longer like the ones sold at most supermarket chains.  That said though, they don’t last long so you have to figure out what to do with them before they go bad.


There are many solutions to this problem – can them for winter, make pounds of gazpacho or tomato sauce to freeze…. OR make tomato rasam. Tomato rasam is the South Indian equivalent to Italian pasta sauce in many ways. It’s eaten in the home most everyday, but the difference is it’s spicy, usually made with lentils and eaten plain or on rice.  Here are some of the tomatoes I used in this rasam. I believe these are Brandywine, the most common variety. (If not though let me know:)


Rasa‘ in rasam is actually a Sanskrit word that means juice and rasam is most usually prepared with tamarind or tomatoes.  There are several different varieties. Rasam is actually the most common name for it and comes from the South Indian language of Tamil.

The kind I grew up eating is referred to as saaru in my mother’s language of Kannada and most often is made with tomatoes, tamarind and a lentil called toor dal.  The flavoring comes from a spice mixture called saarina pudi (saaru powder), which you can make at home or also buy at the Indian market made from red chili, coriander seed, black pepper, fenugreek seed, cumin, mustard seed and asafoetida.  Similar to many Italian tomato sauces, you add a bit of sugar or jaggery (unrefined raw sugar) as well when cooking the soup.  As a result, rasam or saru has a complex flavor of sour, spicy and sweet.

If you’re using really fresh tomatoes like these, you don’t need to use tamarind really because they have enough sourness to them. I modified the original recipes to use red lentils or masoor dal because they cook faster – with the house so hot already I don’t want to have my stove on for longer than it has to be:)

I hope I gave you one more idea of what to do with your summer tomato bounty and if you’re curious about the recipe using toor dal, you can read that one here.

Also, my most favorite way to eat saaru growing up was with basmati rice and green beans palya.  Enjoy!

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  • Anonymous

    This sounds delish! Any chance you have a recipe for rasam powder, too?

  • http://www.cheekychilli.com/ Sharmila

    I had, when I was a child, what can only be described as unbridled passion for rasam, forgetting about it as I grew up. But it’s tomato season, so it is a perfect time to revisit an old love. (Though, rasam powder makes even mediocre tomatoes taste heavenly, I think.) Love the masoor dal usage.

  • Anand J

    I grew up on both tomato saaru and “plain” saaru with tamarind. Interestingly though, my family prefers to keep the “foam” that develops when cooking the daals (they tend to use toor daal more) as they claim it adds flavor and nutrition, and thickens the texture. Requires a little more attention to the stove so as not to boil over, but I have to say that I think I believe at least the flavor and texture theories. Would be interested to see if you find a difference too!

    • Chitra Agrawal

      Hi Anand, Thanks for commenting. That’s interesting that your family keeps the initial foaming. Always interested to learn about how other families cook the same dish. This version uses masoor dal for a quicker cook but traditionally my family also uses toor dal. This is my recipe using toor: http://abcdsofcooking.com/2010/04/saru-rasam-south-indian-tomato-lentil-soup/