Friendly Ferments, Cool Cultures

by Gautam Pemmaraju

It was in Kankakee, IL, at a thanksgiving celebration in the mid 80’s that J introduced my fresh-off-the-boat brother to his family as “the guy I told you about, who eats boiled rice with plain yogurt”. They apparently, recoiled in horror. His alienness was acutely amplified by what was to them utterly inconceivable. Over the course of their undergraduate years however, the mid-eastern lad of German stock was to become a neophyte, an enthusiastic partaker (and proponent) of the peculiar delights of curd-rice – a south Indian staple of phenomenal ubiquity, commuting across homes, roadside eateries, college hostels, factory canteens, corporate boardrooms and temples, with the very same attenuated presence that marks its somewhat esoteric flavours. The smooth, pacifying and palate-cleansing qualities offer not just the satisfaction of a no-fuss, functional meal, but also holds within mythic curative and sacramental promises. Url

Stories abound in my family (perhaps readers will share more?) from the mid 60s of desperate emigrant relatives in the States, from Louisville, KY, Bowling Green, OH to Washington DC, in a perpetual search for the ‘right’ yogurt; not the tart, custard-textured supermarket varieties, or even the smaller artisanal yogurts that were fine for what they were, but the dainty coagulum, mostly form-retaining solid with adjunct watery whey, that was set each night by boiling buffalo or cow’s milk (or sometimes a blend), cooling it down to warm/tepid, and then judiciously spooning in a tiny amount of the previous night’s dahi, to instigate once again, the fermentation of friendly bacteria that have long provided us with an mind-boggling variety of moderated milk products.

There were rumours too, of aunts cunningly smuggling in starter cultures from India in thermos flasks, shamelessly lying to customs men when asked if they had any perishable food items on them, aided of course, by their pious looks, their oblique head nods, not to forget, their mesmerizing bindis.

One can only imagine the bindi to have worked as some sort of stupefying device, rendering the unsuspecting official powerless against such south Asian deceit. The rumours further extended to starter cultures being smuggled through diplomatic bags. A select few would then receive the contraband. Oh the anticipation, the excitement! And eventually, the disappointment, for native cultures seldom, if not never, naturally sustain in alien climates. Strategic placement of the container for setting has also seen some innovation in the diaspora. My mum placed the cloth-covered container on the steam radiator when in England in the 70’s; others have used ovens, hearths, and fridge motor proximity (see Vikram Doctor’s piece here). Striving for the perfect diasporic dahi, is then surely, a crucial part of the larger struggle to fit in.

In Anne Mendelson’s fine book Milk (2008), the recipe for curd-rice begins with informing the reader that ‘curd’ is used in India as an English equivalent of yogurt. The principal traditional fermented milk is dahi, alongside its variants and by-products, which include lassi, chaas, misti-doi, shrikand (known as shikarini in antiquity) and ghee, amongst others. Sold commercially in the unorganized sector, dahi is also commonly made in Indian homes, but the recent past, particularly the last decade, has seen a proliferation of packaged dahis, including a few international brands (unfortunately, the vile Nestle dahi is one). Dahi is viewed as both nutritious and remedial, in particular, alleviating stomach ailments. Dahi-chawal, or curd-rice, whether unadorned with no tempering, or with the traditional tadka/bagaar/chaunk of mustard seeds, urad dal, fenugreek seeds, curry leaves, green chilies (and/or dried red chilies for flavour and colour), asafetida, garnished with slivers of thinly sliced fresh ginger (only when asafetida is not used) and a few ghee roasted cashews, transform this seemingly austere and unappetizing dish into something of a culinary curiosity. A widely found, consumed and beloved one though, which has no greater aspirations then being what it is, in the form that it is – soft mashed rice, plain, unsweetened dahi or yogurt, with or without tempering. When served with a wispy, incense-like mound of an alarmingly red lime pickle, it not just hits the spot, but also placates, propitiates even, the collective gastric consciousness of South India. (Here is a Dhaka style Doi Bhaat).

YogurtIt is generally believed that yogurt (and other traditional fermented milks) is of reasonable antiquity, possibly Turkish in origin, but a precise date is not really accounted for. Settled cultivation and animal husbandry are good indicators, as are some extant texts. KT Achaya, in Indian Food: A Historical Companion (1994), points out that there are several Vedic references to the cow and its bountiful nature. The mischievous young Krishna, aside from naughtily nicking the handily discarded clothes of bathing maidens at riverbanks (such simple earthly delights), was famously keen on milk, ghee and dahi, scoffing stuff at will, and getting caught with his hands in the proverbial earthen pot. His mythologized mischief even plays out as a contemporary sport here in Bombay. Milk, Achaya informs us, was traditionally curdled with “pieces of various green materials like the putika creeper, the palasha (palash) bark, or the fruit of the kuvala (ber, Ziziphus). Curds (dadhi, the present dahi) were eaten with rice, barley or soma juice. Curds folded into fresh milk constituted a popular drink, the solid and liquid portions of this being termed amishka and vajina respectively”.

Earlier still, it is generally believed that fermented milks, particularly the traditional Egyptian Laban Rayed and Laban Khad, date back to the Phoenician era, as early as 7000 BCE. In Manufacturing Yogurt And Fermented Milks (Chandan R, et al, 2006), the writer informs us that Persian legends have it that Abraham ascribed his longevity to yogurt and that Emperor Francis I was cured of a debilitating illness (possibly neurasthenia), by a Jewish doctor from Constantinople who administered him a brew of fermented sheep’s milk. Further references here argue that yogurt and cheese were probably discovered during the Neolithic era. The lining of sheepskin milk pouches curdled the milk due to the presence of the enzyme Rennin. Further still, there is a reference to A Mediterranean Feast (Wright, C, 1999), where the writer says that “the first unequivocal description of yogurt is found in a dictionary called Divanu luga-i turk, compiled by Kasgarli Mahmut in 1072-1073 during the Seljuk era in the Middle East (1038 – 1194). Yogurt spread rapidly through the Levant, but it hardly penetrated the Western and northern Mediterranean”.

The most prominent modern proponent of yogurt, and its alleged therapeutic qualities, was the Nobel Laureate Elie Metchnikoff, who in his seminal thesis, The Prolongation Of Life, argued that the longevity of Bulgarian peasants was due to their dietary proclivity of consuming large quantities of fermented milks, particularly yogurt. He hypothesized, as Nagendra Shah (2006, p 328) writes, “that yogurt bacteria, Lactobacillus delbruckeii ssp bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, control infections caused by enteric pathogens and regulate toxemia, both of which play a major part in ageing and mortality”. However, it was to be conclusively proven subsequently that these bacteria cannot ‘implant’ in the gut. Metchnikoff was however, the reason for western interest in yogurt, and as Mendelson points to the irony in Milk, his ‘accurate enough’ knowledge of the starter cultures eventually paved the way for commercial production of yogurt. While the fad caught on in the West, as a magical therapy for all manner of ailments, Mendelson importantly points out that in ‘Yogurtistan’ or its traditional home territory “people had always eaten it not for health reasons but because it was a beloved food made and handled by well known methods controlled for final flavour”. DLRIF00Z

Bland dahi, sweet dahi and sour dahi appear in various forms and are used intriguingly in many aspects of Indian cooking. Despite a generic northern disregard for curd-rice, and for many things southern, or ‘Madrasi’, spiced dahi alongside rice, in the form of kadhi is prominent all across. Blended together with besan, or chick-pea flour, and spices, the consistency/flavour of kadhi ranges from semi-solid (with fritters) in Punjab, thickly and heavily spiced in Rajasthan (dahi gatte), mildly sweetened and spiced in Gujarat, to more complex variants in the four southern states. In Andhra, dahi is left unrefrigerated overnight so as to sour it and is then blended with chickpea flour, green chilies, fresh coconut, cumin, and coriander seeds. This blend is cooked on a slow heat, and cooked vegetables, as varied as lauki, or bottle gourd, drumsticks, okra, spinach, white pumpkin, potatoes are added to it. The soupy blend is then tempered with mustard seeds, a few red chilies, asafetida, and curry leaves. The resulting dish, alongside hot rice tinctured with melted ghee, and accompanied by crunchy, fried arbi or colacasia, is commonly had at lunch. Avial, a famed culinary export from Kerala, deserves a special mention here. Combining some fabulous vegetables as diverse as yam, raw banana, bitter gourd, ash gourd, snake gourd, drumsticks, pumpkin, brinjal, and more conventional carrots, peas and beans, this dish manages to dexterously, and very imaginatively one might add, balance the complexity of the varying flavours and textures. A small amount of sour dahi, fresh coconut blended with cumin, a tablespoon of coconut oil (or any other), and curry leaves are added to the cooked and salted veggies. The simplicity of the recipe belies its complex nature; it is this very elementary composition that curries great favour, excuse the pun. Popular myth has it that Bhima, one of the five Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata, innovated this dish while they were exiled. Sour dahi, not to be chucked out or wasted, is thus transformed into kadhis. Chaas, or thin Indian buttermilk, whisked and watered down from sour dahi, is found across India, flavoured again, according to regional variation. I prefer the very simple southern versions, lightly salted and garnished with fresh curry leaves, or more intriguingly, with the tender leaves of an uncommon citric fruit called Dabbakaya, or Indian Grapefruit. The more robust north Indian lassi, both sweet and salted, is as refreshing and pleasing as the thinner chaas, although the latter, is better suited for the hotter, and more humid climes.

Picture 1Chandan et al, refer to fermented milk products as ‘functional foods’, and argue for their critical role in dietary habits: “These products fit into the cultural and religious traditions and dietary pattern of many populations”. Traditionally, the starter culture is never meant to be sold, but is always given away or gifted. The process of reusing and regeneration, are key ideas. We see such practices with kefir grains as well. Kefir itself, which Russian doctors still recommend for gastric ailments, is fascinating for a variety of reasons. Naturally probiotic in nature, kefir is a traditional cultured fermented milk from the Caucasus (see this page for greater detail). ‘A complex consortium of about 30 species of bacteria and yeasts’, kefir grains are the starter cultures for the drink that is said to have been a favourite of Prophet Mohammed (see Chandan et al, 2006). Kefir too, along with Nordic fermented milks, is widely believed to be beneficial to health, in playing ‘immuno-modulating roles’. It is suggested that the starter cultures in several such fermented milks ‘stimulate secretion of immunoglobulins’ and that kefir, specifically, “is reported to inhibit the growth of pathogenic and spoilage microflora”. Very interestingly arguing for fermentation as ecology, Scott and Sullivan, in Ecology Of Fermented Foods (Human Ecology Review, 2008) point to kefir, an ‘insoluble polysaccharide with antibacterial and cicatrizing properties’ as as ‘stable probiotic food’: “kefir colonies provide a tangible visible sense of biodiversity that inhabit this fermented food. Kefir points to a means of solving environmental problems by using diversity instead of eliminating it”. They further argue for the critical linkages between life processes and ecological processes as demonstrated by fermented foods and that “the patterns of culture which last the longest may be those that mimic the dynamics of ecosystems”. Fermentation, a natural process, is caused by wild bacteria and yeasts, which are ambient in the air across continents, as the authors point out; it is a natural resource and must be viewed critically in a broader ecological framework.

As Chandan et al also point out, milk conservation through fermentation has allowed for the preservation of valuable nutrients otherwise lost due to climate factors and this in turn, has allowed for milk products to be preserved and consumed over time periods much longer than the shelf life of milk itself. Further, fermentation, the authors argue, has also allowed for “food safety, portability, and novelty for the consumer”.

The purported health benefits of yogurt are hotly debated. While there is general agreement that probiotic yogurt affects digestion, there seems to be no conclusive proof that it repopulates gut flora. Microbiologist Jeffery Gordon says here, that there is “a form of communication between yogurt strains and the normal resident bacteria in the gut. And that communication resulted in a change in the properties of the gut communities”. There seems to be a suggestion of aiding the break down of polysaccharides in the gut. There have been many claims of health benefits, and as pointed out in the linked NPR piece above, Dannon, the yogurt giant, faced litigation against claims of immune and digestive benefits of its products. (See also this). Url1

While traditional Indian dahi is also a ‘yogurt like’ fermented milk product, it is far different from yogurt in many ways. As Vedamuthu (2006) points out, dahi is ‘a weak gel like junket’, according to Rangappa and Achaya (1975), and ‘is soft and livery’: “Plain yogurt currently made is a firm smooth product that can be spooned without much distortion of the curd body and structure…Dahi, on the other hand, is a soft coagulum that is lumpy, and would display jagged edges when the curd is broken, and exude whey near the cut edges…In terms of flavour, yogurt is characterized by sharp, acid tartness (recent trends in yogurt show a preference for mild acidity) and the characteristic green acetaldehyde flavour. Dahi, on the other hand, is mildly acidic, and diacetyl is the prominent flavour compound”. Importantly, the starter compounds used are different – in dahi they are predominantly dairy lactococci and leuconostocs, the former convert lactose to lactic acid and the latter partially produce acetic acid, ethyl alcohol, and carbon monoxide, which impart it with its characteristic ‘balanced rounded flavour’.

It is this balance, roundedness, smooth self-assured equanimity that gives Indian dahi great versatility. From an excellent marinade for meats, a main ingredient for lovely fresh salads, raitas and pachadis, to batter flavouring and fortification (not to mention its cosmetic hair and skin use), dahi finds incredible utility and prominence in the vast Indian food firmament. It will take another column to approach its stupendous leverage and its complex, intriguing ‘social life’, but I will end here with my mum’s simple recipe for punuku, a delicate, deep fried snack.

Challa_punukuluMix 2.5 parts rice flour with 1 part maida (refined wheat flour), 1.5 parts sour dahi, into a thick batter, season with salt and let this sit for a couple of hours. Add finely chopped raw onion, green chillies and coriander to the batter. Roll this thickened batter into lemon sized balls, and deep fry in hot oil. (One could also add a pinch of baking soda to the batter). The resultant golden fried balls, exquisitely crunchy on the outside, daintily soft and cheesy on the inside, with a faintly sour coriander inflected taste, cheerily interrupted by the gentle crunch of onion and green chilly, are often accompanied by fresh coconut or ginger chutney. If none around, there need be no cause for concern, just make do with suitable amounts of beer, as I am apt to do on occasion. And if clapping for dancing girls produces any favourable results, then I daresay the universe is a ‘well tuned piano’.