Bharatanatyam Dancer Bala Devi Chandrashekar Shares Her Indian Soup Recipe

January 17, 2024

Growing up, whenever Bala Devi Chandrashekar was feeling under the weather, her mom would make her jeera rasam, a traditional Indian cumin-and-pepper soup. Chandrashekar did the same for her two sons, and continues to swear by the dish’s healing powers. (Chandrashekar’s­ jeera rasam recipe, which she learned from her mother-in-law, leaves out the tomatoes and coriander­ seeds that her own mother included.) “If you have nausea or you feel very feverish or you have a headache or some uneasiness in the body, immediately we make this jeera rasam,” says the Princeton, New Jersey–based bharatanatyam dancer. “The ingredients are quite herbal in nature and very healing.”

“I like everything natural,” says Chandrashekar of her cooking habits. “I don’t like coloring, and I believe a lot in fresh food. Nothing preserved, nothing too refrigerated or overheated. I think we all need to be conscious that we don’t shock our systems.” A vegetarian, she emphasizes vegetables, lentils, and lots of fluids. “I can tell you I cook quite tasty food,” she says, adding that the friends she’s made while touring around the world all appreciate her Indian cooking. “They really love it,” she says. “Because each recipe comes with a very exquisite combination of spices and herbs.

A Holistic Approach

For Chandrashekar, practicing classical dance and yoga seeps into every aspect of her life—including the food she consumes. “Yoga is not just about wearing yoga pants and doing some asanas, and dance is not just about wearing a costume and coming up onstage, butto live that experience even offstage,” she says. When deciding what to eat, Chandrashekar keeps in mind the Ayurvedic principle of sattva, which she translates as purity of mind. “We need activities and food that trigger that compassion in us, the feeling of love for everybody,” she says. “So when you eat calming food, or something that’s very pure, you trigger that sattva in you.”

Ingredient Key

asafoetida: Known as hing in Hindi, asafoetida is a gum resin extract from ferula, a celery-like herb. It’s purchased in a powdered form, and small amounts of it are commonly used in Indian cooking. If you don’t have an Indian grocery nearby, it’s available on Amazon for under $6.

tamarind: A common flavor in Indian, Mexican, and Thai cooking, whole tamarind pods can be purchased at most specialty or Latin markets. They’re also available online, as is tamarind pulp, which can be watered down for use in this recipe.

pigeon pea: Also called toor dal, pigeon peas are a dried legume similar to yellow lentils. Puerto Rican and Filipino cuisines also make use of pigeon peas. The Latin brand Goya, which is available in many grocery stores, sells them. They’re also available from a number of online suppliers.

a counter top with spices and seeds  in small bowls
Ingredients for jeera rasam. Photo by Chandru Balaraman, Courtesy Chandrashekar.


  • 1 tbsp ghee
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1/2 tsp asafoetida (hing), divided
  • 35–40 fresh curry leaves, divided (“I take them from the plant in my garden,” says Chandrashekar. “All the Indian stores sell curry leaves, but during the summer they grow quite well in a pot.” While not Chandrashekar’s preference, dried curry leaves are also available for purchase online.)
  • 2 cups tamarind water (Chandrashekar makes this herself by soaking tamarinds in hot water and squeezing the juice out. “But if you don’t have time, you can get it in Indian stores,” she adds, or you can buy compressed tamarind pulp and dilute it in hot water.)
  • 2 tbsps dried pigeon peas (toor dal)
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tbsp black peppercorns
  • 2 dried red chilies
  • salt to taste


  1. Heat the ghee over medium heat in a stainless-steel pan with a copper bottom (Chandrashekar stresses that any stainless steel pot or pan will do, it should just not be nonstick). Add the mustard seeds and let them splutter.
  2. Add 1/4 tsp asafoetida and 10–15 curry leaves to the pan and sauté for a few seconds.
  3. Pour in the tamarind juice and let it come to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and let the mixture simmer.
  4. In the meantime, prepare the powder. Grind the toor dal, remaining curry leaves, cumin seeds, black peppercorns, dried red chilies, and 1/4 tsp asafoetida in a mortar and pestle until you achieve a fine powder.
  5. Add the prepared powder to the juice mixture, and stir well to combine.
  6. Season with salt according to your taste, cover the pot, and let the jeera rasam continue simmering for about 5 minutes.
  7. Remove from heat and serve hot with rice, bread, curried vegetables, or on its own as a soup .
a metal bowl with a dark soup inside
Chandrashekar’s jeera rasam. Photo by Chandru Balaraman, Courtesy Chandrashekar.