Kanji for the soul: South Indian comfort food recipes when you are ill

Soups with tender pieces of meat, kanji and hot rasam poured over mashed rice are a balm for those feeling under the weather.
A bowl of rice kanji
A bowl of rice kanji
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An interesting entry from writer Sylvia Plath’s food diary, recorded on Sylvia Plath's Food Diary Twitter page, caught my attention while researching for this story. Dated February 27, 1961, the entry read, “Last night I felt too sick for supper - had only a cup of Ovaltine, got into my night dress behind flowered curtains.” This is very true. We become incapable of consuming anything when we fall sick. The body feels no hunger and the tongue gets no taste. The COVID-19 pandemic is especially harsh, crippling not just one but everyone in the family and sometimes leaving no caretakers. For those living alone, the situation is bleak since they will have to isolate and care for themselves. So what are some of the South Indian recipes that come in handy during such times to help revive the body?

KT Achaya, a renowned food historian wrote in his book Indian Food Tradition: A Historical Companion (1994), at the end of a chapter on medicinal foods. “Without proper diet, medicines are of no use; with proper diet, medicines are unnecessary.” There’s nothing like a plate of nourishing food when your body is recovering from sickness. Soups with tender pieces of meat in it, rice kanji, spicy, hot rasam poured over cooked and mashed rice are a balm for those feeling under the weather.

My mother’s first go-to recipe, whenever I fall sick, is a simple arisi-odacha kanji that's nothing but rice coarsely ground and then boiled into a kanji (porridge). Rice grains are first roasted lightly, just until it gets aromatic, and then put in the mixer to be coarsely ground. Just two to three spoonfuls are cooked in two glasses of water, until the broken rice is cooked. This is served with sugar or salt, depending on one’s taste. Kanji can also be made using whole rice grains and will taste equally refreshing.

To the usual rice kanji, made watery and not thick, author Hazeena Seyad says payir upperi is the perfect accompaniment. “This is nothing but green gram dal boiled with two green chillies, turmeric powder and a bit of salt,” explains Hazeena, the Tirunelveli-based author of Ravuthar Recipes. A very light thadka of mustard seeds and curry leaves tossed into coconut oil is poured over this upperi.

If you’re feeling better, the next step is to mix this kanji with rasam.

Indian recipes in particular call for the use of spices such as cumin, turmeric and pepper, all of which are the perfect comfort for the weathered body and interestingly all three of them come in one piping hot pot of pepper rasam. According to Jeyashri Suresh, a food blogger of vegetarian recipes who now lives in Hong Kong, pepper rasam is the best choice for someone who is on the road to recovery. “Pepper rasam rice with a fire roasted papad tastes perfect for the tastebuds.”

The perfect pepper rasam requires just three simple ingredients - pepper, cumin, and turmeric powder. Jeyashri’s recipe calls for one red chilli, half a teaspoon of toor dal, and a tablespoon each of pepper and cumin to be dry roasted and ground. This powder is added to the usual tamarind water, turmeric powder, salt, and asafoetida mixture. Curry leaves and mustard seeds are tempered in ghee and added to the boiling rasam just before turning off the gas.

Picture courtesy: Jeyashri Suresh

Dr Nandita Iyer, author of Everyday Superfoods and who regularly blogs at The Saffron Trail, explains that when it comes to using acidic food such as tamarind or tomatoes, the perks of it is that it helps with the appetite. “It also makes flavour perception better, especially when you have loss of taste and smell. Gentle spices like cumin and black pepper are preferred over the usage of garam masala when a person is recovering.”

She further explains that when it comes to making savoury dishes, one always has to use black pepper with turmeric. “The piperine (a bioactive compound) in black pepper enhances the curcumin in turmeric. This helps increase the benefits of using turmeric powder in our dishes.”

Nandita also recommends pongal made using rice and moong dal. “For a vegetarian diet, this comes loaded with proteins which is most essential for someone recovering from an illness,” she adds. The simplest way to make it is to wash and pressure cook equal proportions of rice and moong dal. Salt is added in the end and can be had with boiled vegetables.

Another powerhouse of proteins is a simple, comfort food recommended by Hazeena Seyad. “Country chicken soup that’s really thin is usually given along with steamed food like idli or idiyappam.” This, Hazeena vouches, is the perfect food for someone recovering from an illness.

“Well-cleaned country chicken, turmeric and vinegar can be used for cleaning, and is cooked in gingelly oil. One clove, one cardamom and a small piece of cinnamon are at first made to crackle followed by a handful of small onions sautéed until translucent. Half a teaspoon of ginger, garlic paste is added and then the chicken goes in. All of them are sautéed until the chicken turns white,” Hazeena shares. This is now pressure cooked with one tomato, a pinch of turmeric powder and plenty of water. Crushed pepper and cumin seeds are added along with salt and voila.

“Some add a gooseberry size of ground poppy seeds, just to give the soup a thicker consistency,” Hazeena adds.

There are also healing concoctions that help alleviate congestion. Hazeena shares her recipe for a piquant brew called the chukku thanni. “It’s best especially when you’ve got a cold, blocked nose, sore throat or if you’re feeling nauseous,” she says.

Crushed dry ginger, pepper, tulsi leaves and betel leaves are boiled in water with a few pods of garlic (with its skin). Drumstick stems are added to it and the water is reduced in half. Karupatti (palm jaggery) is added in the end. “If someone’s got pitham (bile obstruction) a handful of dried grapes and crushed coriander seeds are added to it.”

Of course, there’s always the comfort of curd rice, curd being an excellent probiotic that helps keep a good gut. To this, Jeyashri says, the perfect accompaniment is the sun-dried citron pickle. But this needs to be in stock at home. Fresh citrons are cleaned, cut either into rinds or small pieces, mixed with generous amounts of sea salt, and left to dry in the sun over long periods of time. Stored in an air-tight container, this pickle can be consumed for years.

As someone who’s got a special love for this particular salted pickle, that I sometimes carry as an amulet especially when traveling to hilly areas, there’s a tiny glass bottle of it stored in a dark corner of my house. In it is a modest stock of salted citrons that is mostly just a reassuring presence than meant for consumption… That all will soon be well.

And if you’ve fallen sick, here’s wishing you a very speedy recovery. 

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