Do we need the Greeks to tell us how to enjoy yogurt?

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Apr 28, 2016 17:10 IST
Photo: Images Bazaar

Most Indians take dahi for granted. At my home in Bombay, I paid little attention to the process of setting the dahi every night, and treated it as something that was entirely normal and unexceptional. Had I been a little brighter or more inquisitive as a child, I would have asked how the milk turned into dahi or why we needed to add a little bit of the previous day’s dahi to the new lot.

But because we ate so much dahi – Gujaratis eat dahi with theplas, use it in cooking, make kadhi out of it, etc – I treated what should have been a magical and fascinating process as just something that everybody everywhere did every day.

It was only during a trip to London, where my parents spent part of the year, that I began to notice things. First of all, my mother would not make dahi. She would buy it from a shop. It came in a plastic tub with a tin-foil top and was called ‘yoghurt’ and not ‘curd’, which I had been told was the English name for dahi. My mother was not much help. When I asked her what yoghurt was, she answered shortly, “It is the English name for dahi”. And that was that.

But she kept complaining about English dahi. It had no taste. The consistency was nothing like real dahi. And why was it so expensive?

Yoghurt has come to be regarded as a miracle food and Westerners are suddenly buying millions of little plastic tubs of yoghurt (Shutterstock)

It took me years to figure out why we were the only people in that English grocery shop who bothered to buy yoghurt (Brits did not eat it those days). And it took even longer for me to figure out that the key to yoghurt was bacteria. As for the name, well dahi is yoghurt. The term ‘curd’ refers to the solids in the yoghurt, not to dahi itself.

As you probably know (and I wrote about this several years ago), yoghurt is the child of the marriage between milk and bacteria. Our bodies contain millions of bacteria, most of them beneficial. In fact there are more bacteria in the human body than there are cells. These bacteria perform a variety of functions but one of the most crucial is the role that gut bacteria play in the digestive process.

Certain strains of bacteria have the power to transform milk. Some bacteria assist in the making of cheese. And a more common bundle of varieties turns it into dahi. The reason we add a little bit of old dahi to milk when we need to make some more is because we want the bacteria inside the old dahi to act on the milk.

There is evidence to suggest that the bacteria in dahi are good for our digestion. And so, over the last two decades, yoghurt has come to be regarded as a miracle food and Westerners are suddenly buying millions of little plastic tubs of yoghurt.

This marks a change from the old days. Any yoghurt my mother used to buy had been processed to kill all bacteria so it had no health benefits at all. Now, food companies try and ensure that the bacteria stay alive because that is the principal selling point of yoghurt in the West.

But, I wondered, was my mother right to complain about how bland and tasteless the English packaged yoghurt was?

Yoghurt should be like home-made dahi with a little water in the bowl. But industrial yoghurt manufacturers use chemicals to thicken it and give it that smooth consistency and texture (Shutterstock)

It turned out she was right, after all. The manufacturing process for nearly all commercial yoghurt relies on introducing bacteria into the milk, not in the form of old dahi, but as a ready-made bacteria powder. Because many different bacteria can turn milk into yoghurt, the chances are that commercial bacteria powder used micro-organisms that were quite different from the ones we found naturally in India which gave our dahi a slight khatta taste. Plus yoghurt is not meant to set into a smooth semi-solid. It should be like home-made dahi with a little water in the bowl. But industrial yoghurt manufacturers use chemicals to thicken the yoghurt and give it that smooth consistency and texture.

So could my mother have made her own dahi in London? Yes, she could have but only if she had taken a little Indian dahi with her to add to milk to start off the next batch of yoghurt. She couldn’t have used commercial yoghurt for that purpose because it had no active (still alive) bacteria in it. And even then, it may not have tasted the same.

As bacteria begin to act on milk, they also attract other micro-organisms which are in the atmosphere. So, when the dahi is finally set, it is thanks to the work of the original bacteria in the dahi starter and the effect of atmospheric micro-organisms. And because these micro-organisms vary so much from location to location, the taste they impart to the dahi can vary considerably.

A bowl of dahi made in a home in Trivandrum will taste different from one set in Delhi or Simla because the bacteria is different (Shutterstock)

You don’t have to go abroad to test this hypothesis. A bowl of dahi made in a home in Trivandrum will taste different from one that has been set in Delhi or Simla. Commercial yoghurt manufacturers discovered this the hard way when they tried to reproduce Bulgarian yoghurt in the US and the UK. No matter how hard they tried (the same milk, the same ambient temperatures and a starter culture of yoghurt that had set in Bulgaria), it just would not taste the same. You simply could not reproduce the micro-organisms in the Bulgarian air in America or England.

While America only discovered yoghurt a century ago, our ancestors knew all about it and its healing properties 500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. That’s when we find the first references to dahi in ancient Indian texts. And many medicinal writings from the ancient period suggest yoghurt as a remedy for stomach ailments. One theory is that the tradition of including yoghurt in an Indian meal (as a raita, chaas or on its own) was a way of ensuring that there were enough good bacteria in your system to fight off infections. Our forefathers did not know the science – there are no writings about bacteria in ancient Indian texts – but they understood the efficacy of yoghurt.

The other people who recognised that yoghurt was good for health were Eastern Europeans (like the aforementioned Bulgarians). It is possible (and the Turks say it is certain) that Greece learned how to make yoghurt from Turkey and other Middle Eastern cultures. But the Greeks made it their own and Greek yoghurt is now a global rage.

The term ‘Greek yoghurt’ sounds fancy but it actually is no more than ordinary dahi that has had the water drained away so that the milk solids remain. It is a process that will be familiar to all Indians because we hang dahi in muslin before making such desserts as shrikhand.

Thick Greek yoghurt is now a hot property in the US. Over the last five years, the growth in the yoghurt market in the US has come almost entirely from Greek yoghurt. And India may follow the global trend.

Epigamia’s success has taken the brand by surprise, they can’t keep up with the demand

I came across Epigamia yoghurts almost by accident when Vaibhav, the manager of my local Nature’s Basket in Defence Colony, suggested I try some. Though I am normally sceptical of packaged yoghurts, I took Vaibhav at his word and bought a few.

Within a day, I was hooked. Then, I launched a very public search on Twitter to find out who made them (because I had never heard of Epigamia). Twitter has a way of delivering, so I got my answer in minutes. Rohan Mirchandani and his two partners (Rahul Jain and chef Ganesh Krishnamoorthy) started out with ice-cream then moved into this untried segment because they had dairy experience. The success of Epigamia has taken them by surprise and their biggest problem is keeping up with the demand, which is roughly twice their current manufacturing capacity.

Rohan has positioned his yoghurts as a solution for the ‘choti si bhook’ problem. So when hunger strikes, and you don’t want to eat something heavy like a samosa, a small tub of Epigamia should do the trick. According to Ganesh Krishnamoorthy, who is responsible for the great taste of the product, the challenge was to make Indians rethink our attitude to yoghurt. We are used to dahi – hell, we practically invented it! – but we treat it as a side-dish or an accompaniment (like raita). The trick was to make yoghurt the star of the show – something we ate by itself.

The success of Epigamia suggests that we are willing to look at yoghurt differently though Indians have not yet bought into the good-health hype that is an integral part of yoghurt marketing in the West. Apart from the probiotic benefits, Greek yoghurt is rich in protein and has half the carbs of normal yoghurt. These health benefits are slightly compromised if you add lots of sugar to it so Epigamia will probably branch away from its fruit flavours (strawberry, mango, banana, etc) and also try a savoury line.

Speaking for myself, I like unflavoured Epigamia yoghurt, which you can use for cooking in place of normal dahi or as a snack on its own (I add a little honey).

But do Indians need Greeks to tell us how to enjoy yoghurt? I guess not. We should treat it not as some fancy foreign product but as our very own dahi, just strained to remove the water.

It’s something our ancestors made in 500 BC. And it is something our descendants will keep doing in the centuries ahead.

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