Among the many monikers associated with Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu, 'City of temples' is probably the most appropriate. With close to 200 temples within its municipal limits, the area around this town is believed to have been inhabited from 3rd Century BC. The legends around the name of this town surround 'Kumbha' the mythical pot of the Hindu god Brahma. That's not the only pots and pans story you will hear in Kumbakonam. I remember visiting this town as a child and almost throwing a fit as my mother dragged me from one utensil store to the other. Kumbakonam is famous for its range of vessels and lamps that have been perfected over generations by local craftsmen. Kumbakonam's brass coffee filter (the town is synonymous with Kumbakonam 'degree' coffee) is legendary and then there's the Eeya Sombu.
Rasam is the ultimate comfort food for many South Indians and I'm no exception. The Eeya Sombu is one of the many heirlooms in my kitchen that I take great pains to preserve. You will hear many stories around this unassuming utensil that is used almost exclusively for rasam. Unfortunately these stories and the utensil's reputation have not saved it from the verge of extinction. About four years ago I made a brief stop in Kumbakonam on my way to the 12th Century Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram that is part of the trio of the Great Living Chola temples. I stopped by at Anandha Vilas Pathirai Kadai (Tamil for utensil store) that is one of the popular stores for the Eeya Sombu. Some of the locals mentioned that there are fewer craftsmen that make this utensil than a decade ago. Hopefully that's something the Instagram generation and the product's availability on online platforms like Amazon will change.
So what makes the Eeya Sombu an object of so much discussion. I asked my grandaunt in Mumbai - Mrs Kalyani Raghavan, who probably makes the best rasam in my family. She's been using this utensil for more than 60 years and tells me that it enhances the flavour and also possesses health benefits. Eeyam refers to a tin alloy in Tamil while the sombu is a type of smaller utensil. The alloy used in units in and around Kumbakonam is usually imported from Malaysia and these sombus are all handcrafted. My grandaunt remembers a time when the eeya sombu got mixed up for lead and saw it go out of favour in many homes. Thankfully that misconception has disappeared. But the challenges that involve using this vessel continue. The alloy is very malleable, so make sure you don't use kitchen pincers or tongs to hold this vessel when it's hot. Also, make sure that you always cook your rasam on a low flame even at the usual stage when you bring your rasam to boil at a high flame.
The typical eeya sombu comes with a capacity of 700-800 ml, that's usually good for one meal for a family of four. You will notice that the common design for the eeya sombu doesn't feature sharp edges because of the nature of the alloy. You need to make sure that you keep stirring the pot and also that the sombu is always at least half full. A typical eeya sombu costs around Rs 2,500 to Rs 4,000. It's certainly not inexpensive but if you're a rasam connoisseur or keen to save a traditional craft, it may not be a stiff price tag for a cooking utensil that still occupies a special place in many South Indian kitchens.
Eeya Sombu Thakkali (tomato) Rasam
-Tamarind: 1 gooseberry sized ball
-Tomato: 3 small (finely chopped)
-Green chilli: 1 (slit).
-Asafoetida: a pinch
-Jaggery: 1 teaspoon (finely powdered)
-Ginger: 1-2 big pieces (finely crushed)
-Toor dal: 1/2 cup
-Peppercorns: 3/4 teaspoon
-Jeera: 3/4 teaspoon
-Mustard: 1 teaspoon
-Curry leaves: a few sprigs
-Rasam powder: 1 1/2 tablespoon
-Ghee: 1 teaspoon
-Turmeric: 1/2 teaspoon
-Salt: to taste
-Coriander: a few sprigs
-Lemon: juice of half lemon
. Soak the tamarind in warm water for about 20 minutes and extract the water
. Pressure cook the dal (about 15 minutes) with turmeric powder
. Cook the tamarind water on a low flame in a pan as you add ginger. Add the tomatoes, green chillies, jaggery asafoetida, salt and rasam powder.
. Mash the dal and add to the tamarind water as it starts to cook and add water (2-3 cups depending on how dilute you want it). Transfer contents to the Eeya Sombu. Make sure you leave the eeya sombu on a medium flame and keep stirring gently
. Grind the jeera and peppercorns and add to the rasam as it begins to simmer.
. Temper the mustard seeds and curry leaves in the ghee and add to the rasam. Add the lemon juice as you switch off the flame.
. Throw in the coriander once the rasam is done and cover with a lid for a few minutes before you serve.
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.