(Note: This article appeared in Namaste in 2005)
IT’S THE sign-off note to a traditional meal in the fiery climate of Tamil Nadu as thayir saadam or curd rice. It’s the secret to tender morsels of mutton that fall off the very bone in the succulent and spicy Kashmiri signature dish, yakhni. It’s the culinary coup that helped Bengal to conquer pan-Indian taste-buds with plump slices of carp or rohu fish in the delicate gravy of doi machch. It’s the sweet-and-sour dance of shrikhand on the tongue in Maharashtra, whether as dessert or with fluffy golden pooris as the main course.
If there’s one ingredient that acts as a catalyst in the Indian kitchen, it’s unsweetened curds or yoghurt. Whether you call it thayir or dahi or doi or mosiru or any other regional name, it marinates the meats, it cools the fire of chilli on the palate, it is teamed with vegetables and lentils for an alternate flavour, it tames the flavour-laced biriyanis and pulaos as raita. It even slows down racing pulse rates at the peak of summer as long, refreshing draughts of chaas in Gujarat, ginger-spiked majjige in Karnataka or the thick, sweetened lassi in Punjab.
Just when I thought there were very few turns on the curds trail that I hadn’t explored, a surprise from an unexpected source burst into my culinary life. A friend who relishes the simplest of fare, yet often pines for the flavours of Kerala, surprised his dinner guests with a curry unlike any we had savoured before. At its summery heart were slices of ripe malgoa mango, transformed into manna.
What turned the golden fruit into an irresistible sweet-sour and pungent curry? In this distinctive dish, the peeled fruit is first boiled in water with a dash of turmeric and chilli powder. Once soft, a stream of curd pureed with fresh coconut, green chilli and jeera is poured over it on the boil. And a sprig of curry leaves with its pungent flavour. The final touch? The dish is seasoned with mustard seeds and red chilli in oil. How does the tongue respond to this divine offering? By asking for a second helping over mounds of steaming rice.
Between the covers of any Indian cookbook picked at random, curds leaves its flavour-rich trail. Take Daawat by celebrity food guru Jiggs Kalra and ayurvedic expert Pushpesh Pant, which grew out of a similarly titled TV cookery show. Its pages are studded with curds-enhanced fare, a rich source of dairy protein. Like the Mahi Dum Anaari, or baby pomfret stuffed with squid, scallops and pomegranate in funugreek-tempered curds gravy. Or the Lahori Aloo of potatoes in a sauce of onion and curds. Or the Thengankai Kori, or breasts of chicken in a coconut-curds gravy.
Kalra and Pant note, “An Indian meal is inconceivable without dahi or yoghurt. It is omnipresent, so to speak. Either a part of the food is cooked in it, or it is partaken in its natural form, unflavoured.” Immediately, the Indian palate conjures up visions of the special Kerala vegetable preparation, avial, a medley of vegetables in spiced curds and coconut. And thayir pachadi of salad diced daintily into curds. Or even malpoa, the pan-Indian sweet of flour-and-curds fritters, soaked in sugar syrup.
The Calcutta Cookbook, that irresistible fund of folklore and never-fail recipes from the cosmopolitan city by Minakshie Dasgupta, Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha, describes the Dastar Khwan dishes that streamed out of once-royal or shahi kitchens of the descendents of Awadh. How did their stomachs survive feasting on handi-cooked masoor dal flavoured with a gold mohur, pulao, fish kormas, stir-fried vegetables for dinner? The shahi kitchen’s hakim, who doubled as the official taster and doctor, had a remedy. He prescribed burhani as a digestive, a drink of curds spiced with garlic and chilli.
Is it basically because curds is a naturally predigested food that it has been adopted so wholeheartedly by Indian cooks? Positively so. From the thick, yellow spicy pool of karhi and chaawal that the Gujaratis love to the golden, protein-rich lentil dumplings cooling in curds or dahi vadas that the cooks of Tamil Nadu boast of, from the boondi-studded raita that offsets the sauteed raisins and nuts of a pulao to the majjige huli of Karnataka, a protein-rich curds and lentils dish ~ in each, curds is the only constant ingredient.
Though no Bengali housewife would ever serve unsweetened curds, even prior to the invention of mishti doi or sweetened curds, she did offer curds sprinkled with sugar as an instant dessert. Of course, that was before she discovered the steamed, homemade variant of bhapa-doi, made of whey-strained curds and condensed milk, sprinkled with green cardamom and pistas.
Is there science to mishti doi, Calcutta’s favourite anytime, any-day treat? The Calcutta-based authors note, “We listened with attention to an expert’s scientific treatise on doi. Naren Das of the K C Das family (legendary Bengali confectioners) explained how the Lactobacillus Bulgaria and Streptococcus bacteria which have grown in yesterday’s doi are mixed into the fresh milk boiled down to half its volume and then cooled to 40 degrees Centigrade. Sugar is added and the mixture is kept at a constant temperature until it sets.”
More medical lore? “Before the discovery of miracle drugs, Calcutta’s allopathic physicians, among them Dr. B C Roy, Col. Denham White and Sir Nilratan Sircar, prescribed mishti doi for their patients with typhoid because the preparation is unadulterable and has plenty of the vitamin Bs,” write Dasgupta, Gupta and Chaliha.
Dr. K. T. Achaya, India’s leading food historian, notes in ‘The Story of our Food’ that the Ain-I-Akbari, the legendary chronicle by the Emperor Akbar’s courtier Abul Fazl, lists numerous meat dishes cooked with ghee, spices, curds and even eggs, including the kebabs, the dopiaza, the dumpukht dishes cooked in vessels sealed with a flour paste, and the rich rezala of fattened young lamb. In most meat dishes, curds was the tenderizer preferred to raw papaya or lime juice.
Did the nomadic Aryans, reputed to have settled in the Indus Valley after streaming in from central Asia, bring curds with them? History suggests so. In a more literary vein, Dr. Achaya adds that in south India, even 4,000 years ago, huge herds of cattle were tended in pens ~ and, probably as a result, the Tamil language had numerous words for cream, ghee, butter and curds.
Away from the karhais and handis where chefs and housewives alike celebrate this versatile ingredient, the saint-poet Surdas introduces a poetic note on the curds trail. The poet couches the longing for the cowherd-lord Krishna in the words of his lady love Radha thus, often rendered in Hindustani classical music:
“Kara pakarata mori/ Ai dadhi cheenata/ Bhulake na au Shyama tore dagari”
(Tugging at my hand/ He grabbed the curds away/ I will not walk down the road to Krishna’s house even by mistake).
With these musical notes between culinary cues from the Indian kitchen, curds winds its versatile route, inextricably linking the past and the present as it flavours the future.