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Yoghurt: Set It Right

Can the advent of glitzy packaged yoghurt replace the charm of the humble home-made dahi?

Written by V Shoba | New Delhi |
July 21, 2013 11:27:33 pm

Can the advent of glitzy packaged yoghurt replace the charm of the humble home-made dahi?

In a quiet,old house in south Bangalore with an exposed-brick exterior,Shyamala Iyer buzzes about in the kitchen on a Sunday afternoon,cleaning up after a hearty lunch. After the countertop is cleared,Iyer,68,readies for a ritual as old as time. Reheating a large pot of milk on a low flame,she carefully scrapes out spoonfuls of yoghurt from the bottom of an uruli — a rounded bronze pot coated with tin — and beats it with a wooden spoon. She then stirs this vigorously into the milk and pours the mixture back and forth between the two urulis. Once satisfied,she skims off some of the froth,drops a dried red chilli into the pot and loosely covers it with a lid before placing it in the oven with its pilot light left on. “In Tamil Nadu,yoghurt sets in just four hours,so the ideal temperature for fermentation is about 40-45 degrees Celsius. In cool cities like Bangalore,one learns how to keep the milk warm,” Iyer explains.

It’s a responsibility reserved for the lady of the house and her daughter-in-law,Madhavi,plays the obedient acolyte. “The chilli is a family secret. It prevents the curd from turning sour,” says the 43-year-old who runs a handmade garments business. At a time when tubs of yoghurt — low-fat,probiotic,flavoured,frozen — have made inroads in the Indian market and blogs advise you to use sophisticated sous vide water baths and infrared thermometers to set the perfect batch of yoghurt,Iyer,and many like her,are the last redoubt against a fading culture of the homemade. “Plastic tubs of curd,this must be the collapse of civilisation. My mother passed on some of her yoghurt-making skills to me when I got married and I in turn passed it on to my three children,” says Iyer,who freezes a batch of home-made yoghurt when the family holidays together once a year. “It’s good bacteria from our forefathers.”

The Indian yoghurt industry,currently worth Rs 750 crore,could cross Rs 1,200 crore by 2015 and Iyer fears this will be at the expense of tradition and age-old techniques. While the per capita consumption of dahi in India stands at a mere 2.5 kg a year,it is the fastest-growing segment in the dairy industry. Packaged dahi is only a miniscule share of the yoghurt consumed by Indians,but Amul,Nestle and Mother Dairy — the top three players — are increasingly convincing young families to make the switch to ready-to-eat yoghurt. Take Aditi and Aditya Sahay,who consume a kilogram of packaged low-fat yoghurt and about 500 ml of tetrapak lassi in a week. At their eighth-floor apartment of a high-rise in JP Nagar,Bangalore,the couple,in their early thirties,say they have never made a batch of yoghurt in the three years of their married life. “The store-bought tubs are tastier and consistent despite being low-fat. They are also much less of a hassle — who has the time to wait for yoghurt to set and then cool in the refrigerator?” says Aditya,sales manager with an e-commerce company.

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But despite the increasing reliance on store-bought yoghurt,Indians will always prefer the taste and texture of homemade dahi to the impersonal perfection of plastic tubs,says Mugdha Savkar,a food researcher and stylist. “Yoghurt is such a staple that we take the setting process for granted. It is an intrinsic part of our culinary grooming,” she says. The cultural scaffolding surrounding yoghurt is evidence of this. In parts of Tamil Nadu,for instance,it is believed that a warm body and heart are essential to setting good yoghurt. If you lack either,your yoghurt will supposedly turn out flat and stringy.

Chances are,if you were raised in south India,your grandmother would have chided you for peeping into a pot of fermenting milk. Yoghurt is said to be born of the marriage of milk and yoghurt and it is considered improper to witness this union. Such sentiments are mirrored in a custom from Maharashtra,where a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy is given a baby shower. Among the rituals is a thali served to her with each dish,including curd rice and doodh bhakari or milk roti,covered. This thali becomes the arena for a game that is believed to predict the gender of the baby to come. If the woman uncovers the bowl to find curd rice,it means a boy will be born; if she uncovers the doodh bhakari,a girl will bless the house. Beliefs like these abound. “I have read a folktale about a tribal marriage where a post-wedding custom includes the bride and the groom taking off each other’s bracelets made of khus root and dried turmeric. The couple ties the bracelets together,and using them,stirs milk in a bowl. This bowl is then kept at the feet of the family deity overnight and if the next morning the milk has turned to yoghurt,the marriage is said to bring prosperity of every kind,” Savkar says.

In Punjab,dahi-cheeni is the magical supplement fed to students for luck in exams. A finalist on Masterchef India season one,Chandigarh-based Kandla Nijhowne,says this superstition has a scientific basis. “Dahi cools the system and aids in digestion,so it may help during exams,when the stomach may knot up from anxiety,” she says.

With science advocating fermented foods for better digestive health,dahi is without a doubt the most accessible source of good bacteria. Earlier this month,Pinkberry,the world’s leading yoghurt retailer,opened three stores in India — in Delhi,Bangalore and Chennai — to tap into an urban customer base that is already sold on the goodness of yoghurt. It joins Cocoberry,Kiwikiss and Red Mango,who are doing brisk business in froyo — or frozen yoghurt. “Our yoghurt is gluten and fat-free and has five beneficial bacteria instead of the sole microbe found in regular dahi. Froyo can be a healthy snack or an alternative to dessert,” says Rahul Kumar,who owns the India franchise for Red Mango,an international yoghurt chain with over 250 stores. The brand has introduced 80-odd flavours — made from exotic ingredients like Madagascar vanilla,Californian strawberries and San Franciscan Ghirardelli chocolate — since it set up shop in India in January 2012. Each of its six stores now manages a yearly sales volume of about Rs 2 crore,which is more than what some coffee shops make. “Frozen yoghurt is soon going to hit the Rs 100 crore mark. There’s no reason why frozen yoghurt won’t go down well with them,” says Kumar.

Indians have always understood yoghurt,says chef Sanjay Tyagi of Umerkot,an Indian fine-dining restaurant in Bangalore. “Long ago,when there were no tomatoes in India — they came from Mexico much later — dahi was the ingredient that lent tartness and consistency to gravies,” says Tyagi,whose dahi kebabs,made of hung curd,are popular. The use of dahi has,of course,evolved over the years. The Mughals used it to marinate meat. Today,Punjabi and Gujarati kadhi form an important part of wedding feasts,but decades ago,kadhi was a dish made to use up the gallons of buttermilk that would be left after churning butter from curd. It was fat-free and the poor could afford it.

In most households,the concept of store-bought yoghurt did not exist until a few years ago. “When a housewife ran out of yoghurt,she simply stirred the milk with a piece of alum and set it aside. There are even records of the bark of the palash tree being used similarly during Vedic times,” says Savkar.

Tarla Dalal,the popular cookbook author who specialises in Gujarati vegetarian fare,says,“Every community has developed its own style of cooking with yoghurt. We all make kadhi,but the version made by the Bhatia community of northwest India is most interesting,” she says. The sweet-and-sour concoction calls for cooked toovar dal water,curd,kokum and vegetables like drumstick and okra. Dalal uses yoghurt to knead soft and pliable dough for breads like naan and thepla or sets it with saffron,almond slivers and sugar for a simple dessert.

Homemade dahi is like a capricious spirit,but one that may be artfully tamed with great care. In some parts of northeast India,yoghurt set in hollow bamboo takes on a delightful earthy flavour and doesn’t sour easily. In Punjab,creamy dahi is a result of reduced whole-milk set in an earthen pot — the vessel is thought to absorb excess water,says Pallav Singhal,executive chef at JW Marriott Chandigarh.

Among the Indian chefs exploring the versatility of yoghurt is Manu Chandra,a partner at Olive Beach,Bangalore. Chandra hails from the Kayastha community,known for its liberal and inventive use of dahi,and he incorporates hung curd with equal ease in Italian and Mediterranean cuisine. A signature dessert in his kitchen is a light panna cotta made by simmering together cream,milk,orange zest and sugar,to which gelatin,orange juice and yoghurt are added; the dish is served with a yoghurt caramel sauce.

Meerut-based housewife Anju Sahni makes a dish with hung curd that is diametrically opposite in taste and disposition to Chandra’s dessert. “It’s dahi ka achaar (yoghurt pickle),a recipe my grandmother learned from her aunt when she was young,” says Sahni,36. You grind roasted mustard,fennel,cumin and onion seeds with dried chillies,thick strained curd and mustard oil to get a thick paste served sparingly with dry rotis. “Dahi khao aur khilao (eat and serve yoghurt),my grandmother would say. The plastic dabbas are so expensive that forget about serving it to others,you’d only be able to eat a spoonful of it yourself,” Sahni jokes. Perhaps there is a sour truth here that dairy majors need to swallow.

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(with inputs by Jagmeeta Thind Joy)

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