Takeaway

Diary of dahi

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on October 16, 2020 Published on October 15, 2020

Humble beginnings: The story of yoghurt began soon after ancient man domesticated animals   -  Photo Credit: ISTOCK.COM

From the food of “barbarians” and soldiers, yoghurt has evolved into the favourite of the fitness and gourmet brigade

* Like most Indians, Turks, Bulgarians, Greeks and Iranians, we took dahi for granted. After all, it’s a food that’s been around for 12,000 years

* It pops up in the Rig Veda — in a curd-millet dish called karambha — and in ayurvedic texts that extol its virtues

* Genghis Khan insisted that his warriors consume copious quantities of a fermented drink called kumis, to make them stronger and braver

My first few months as a student in Los Angeles were disorienting. The doors were heavier. The restaurant portions bigger. The cops and criminals scarier.

Among the many things I found baffling was the American approach to dahi.

This was decades ago, well before the advent of artisanal and gourmet everything. Well before you had to choose between sheep’s milk yoghurt and goat’s milk yoghurt, coconut milk yoghurt and almond milk yoghurt. Long before you were expected to know that Australian yoghurt is sweetened with honey, Greek yoghurt is strained to achieve thick creaminess and Icelandic yoghurt is called skyr and is the velvetiest of the lot. Before everyone was quaffing kefir, ayran (a Turkish yoghurt drink) and Yakult and nattering about probiotics.

Even so, there were enough designer twists on offer. The strawberry yoghurts, the peach swirl yoghurts and the cherry-at-the-bottom yoghurts, for instance. Sweetened, unsweetened. More fat, less fat. Big boxes of affordable but bland stuff. Elegant pots that came with unreal price tags and promises. Expensive little boxes that my classmates produced from their backpacks in the middle of class, which they then opened, stirred with a handful of California raisins and — wearing an aren’t-I-healthy expression — spooned up while the teacher taught on.

Gazing at this bewildering array, my room-mate and I would say the same thing every time. “These Americans are crazy!”

After all, we came from a world in which dahi (not exactly yoghurt, but close enough) was set every morning before breakfast and arrived at the table every lunchtime along with the plates and spoons. It was an omnipresent ingredient, used as a marinade for chickens and as a souring agent in kadhi; employed as a base for cucumber and boondi raita and a topping for chaat. We mixed chopped strawberry and sugar into dahi for a quick lunchtime treat. We dolloped it onto crisp jalebis. And we ate curd-rice when we were unwell, and then declared that we were on the road to recovery.

Over hot summers, I would run down to Kailash Parbat restautrant in Colaba, Mumbai, and watch with glee while the mustachioed wizard behind the counter scooped dahi from an aluminum tray the size of a paddle pool and whisked it into lassi topped with blotting-paper-thick malai. Through college, our standard Saturday lunch was a heap of hot puris with chilled shrikhand. And my favourite Indian sweet was, and remains still, an earthen bowl full of silky mishti doi.

Like most Indians, Turks, Bulgarians, Greeks and Iranians, we took dahi for granted. After all, it’s a food that’s been around for 12,000 years.

The story of yoghurt began soon after ancient man domesticated animals and found that while milk was an excellent source of nutrition, it was difficult to digest. “About 65 percent of the world’s population today is still lactose intolerant and the rate is as high as 90 percent in some places,” writes archaeologist Adam Maskevich in an article for the US-based National Public Radio website, in which he argues that yoghurt was an important source of nourishment and acted as a catalyst that allowed societies to grow into early urban civilisations. “The likeliest scenario of how our Neolithic ancestors discovered yogurt is that at some point raw milk was exposed to a strain of wild bacteria that produced a thick, creamy product after it had been left to sit in a warm place. Humans, being the curious species we are, tasted it and liked it. More importantly, we realized that it could be stored without spoiling longer than raw milk and that lots of people could eat it.”

While yoghurt is believed to have originated in Turkey, it’s been a part of the Indian diet for millennia. It pops up in the Rig Veda — in a curd-millet dish called karambha — and in ayurvedic texts that extol its virtues. In around AD 7, Roman author Pliny the Elder noted that “barbarous nations... understand how to thicken milk and make therefrom an acrid kind of liquid with a pleasant flavour”. And Genghis Khan insisted that his warriors consume copious quantities of a fermented drink called kumis, to make them stronger and braver.

From the food of “barbarians” and soldiers, yoghurt has evolved into the favourite of the fitness and gourmet brigade. It’s spawned fro-yo parlours, which are the closest thing to heaven. And creations such as ginger-orange yoghurt and strawberry shortcake yoghurt. For me, it has evolved into a magic ingredient that has saved many lockdown meals from dullness and disaster. It goes into cold soups and curries, onto baked potatoes and salads.

But I’ve learnt a trick or two from the dairy sections of Los Angeles supermarkets. When my daughters ask what’s for dinner, I don’t admit to having made ‘dahi cucumber soup’. Instead, I announce that I’ve made a cucumber soup whipped with Greek yoghurt and infused with dill. After which, everyone has seconds.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author

 

Lemon yoghurt popsicles
  • Ingredients
  • 2 1/2 cups dahi made with slightly thickened whole milk
  • The juice of two limes
  • 2 tbsp milk
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • Chopped peaches, pineapple or strawberries optional
  • Method
  • Stir all the ingredients together and taste for sweetness. You can add more honey if you like it sweeter.
  • Pour into popsicle moulds. If you don’t have popsicle moulds, pour into paper cups and after a couple of hours, when semi-solid, insert an ice-cream stick. Freeze for at least 5 hours. Remove from mould and eat.

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Published on October 15, 2020
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