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.
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.