Rude Food: The curious case of the Indian curd
Years and years ago, whenever I read articles about the romantic novelist (ie she wrote romantic novels, not that she was particularly romantic herself; but then, who knows?) Barbara Cartland, I was startled by the repeated references to Bulgarian yoghurt. The profile writers always suggested that Ms Cartland owed her longevity and relatively good health (she lived to be 98 and kept churning out trashy books almost till the bitter end) to frequent doses of Bulgarian yoghurt.
It was also suggested very discreetly – these were the 1970s, after all – that the aforementioned yoghurt also kept the old dear in top sexual condition.
For those of us who had grown up on yoghurt – the entire population of India, in fact – these references to the magical properties of yoghurt were puzzling. We ate some form of yoghurt nearly every day. And, we were not in particularly better health than the rest of the world. And as for the Bulgarians who, presumably had their fair share of the yoghurt that originated on their shores, well they were hardly renowned for their sexual prowess, were they?
Years later I came to terms with the fact that the West had a very different attitude to yoghurt than we did. Indians grew up on yoghurt, or curd as we called it. We liked dahi, we loved shrikhand, we enjoyed a good raita and we drank lassi and chaas. But no, we didn’t think there was anything terribly special or magical about them.
The West, on the other hand, hardly understood yoghurt. Partly, this was because it only reached many Western countries relatively late. For instance, America only learnt about yoghurt in the first decade of the 20th century. But, it wasn’t till the second half of the century that yoghurt became easily available – usually in small tubs at grocery stores with added fruit flavours. And when the fashion for frozen yoghurt (sold as a kind of low-fat ice-cream) took off in the 1970s, most Americans still did not know what yoghurt really was.
Western Europe had a slightly clearer idea of the true nature of yoghurt. But England, where Miss Cartland ate her Bulgarian yoghurt, continued to regard it as an exotic foreign food unless it came in those artificially-flavoured supermarket tubs. Some of this had to do with the route by which yoghurt entered Europe – through Turkey and the Balkans (The word yoghurt derives from the Turkish name.) Even today, many Westerners regard yoghurt as a Middle-Eastern specialty food.
All this came as a surprise to me. When I was at nursery school in Bombay, we had read about little Miss Muffet eating her curds and whey and had assumed that she was eating dahi. (What was whey? Perhaps it was the liquid that sometimes separated from the dahi in the home-made version, we speculated.) Actually, as I was later to discover, the word ‘curd’ does not mean ‘yoghurt’ in English.
It refers to a milk solid, and curds and whey are merely products that emerge along the way in the cheese-making process.
I was particularly intrigued by the references to Bulgarian yoghurt in that pre-Viagra era. (For academic purposes only, as you, of course, understand). What was all that about? It transpired that a legend had grown up around the longevity of certain Bulgarians and it was suggested that the thick yoghurt they consumed kept them young. The legend acquired a new dimension when attempts to recreate Bulgarian yoghurt in laboratory conditions in the West tended to fail.
It took many years for scientists to get to the bottom of this. As we all know, yoghurt is created by the introduction of bacteria into milk. Scientists identified the principal yoghurt-making bacteria and discovered that these bacteria varied from country to country. In Bulgaria, it was hypothesised, micro-organisms from the atmosphere also assisted in the process of turning milk into yoghurt. So, to make proper Bulgarian yoghurt, you had to make it in the Bulgarian air.
Newer studies have cast doubt on the view that Bulgarian yoghurt can make you live longer – the current view is that the yoghurt is just one of many contributory factors to longevity. On the other hand, you do have the example of Barbara Cartland, who wrote bodice-ripper after bodice-ripper and did live to be 98.
As for why the Bulgarians were not sexual athletes, I found that out too. No study has ever suggested that the consumption of any kind of yoghurt turns you into a stud or vixen. That was just the feverish imagination of the profile-writers of the British press, who had to wait another two decades for Viagra to be invented to elevate their gin-sodden libidos.
While the West treats yoghurt with curiosity, Indians have always regarded it as being an integral part of our tradition. Just as French cuisine would collapse without butter and the cuisines of Japan and China would be finished without the soya bean, so Indian cuisine would be nothing without dahi.
It is the one indigenous ingredient that unites the North and the South. If North Indians need lassi and raita, so South Indians need curd-rice or just curds by themselves. Meats are marinated in curd by all communities. We think of curd-marinades as being a Muslim innovation but the food historian KT Achaya points out that curd-based marinades are mentioned in the Arthashastra, which was written long before either Jesus Christ or the Prophet Mohammed were born.
In fact, says Achaya, the importance of curd in Indian cuisine dates back to prehistoric times. The Rig Veda mentions a curd rice dish. In Vedic times, curds were eaten as an accompaniment to rice. The first references to shrikhand came around 500 BC (or even before the birth of the Buddha.) By 1000 AD, curd was regularly used in cooking. A fairly complex dish of vegetables cooked in spices and dahi and then finished off with a vaghar (baghar) of spices fried in oil is described as part of a banquet. Though the first references to dahi-wadas appear in the 12th Century, Achaya suggests that the dish may have originated even earlier. To realise the significance of these dates, you have to remember that many of the ingredients we now consider integral to Indian food: potatoes, chillies, tomatoes and even maida, did not get to India till the medieval or modern periods. In contrast, curd is almost as old as India itself.
Which leaves us with the big question: why were Indians so adept at using curd when the West had no idea what it was? Some of this has to do with heat and cold. In Western countries, milk products that could be heated, such as cream were more popular. In India, on the other hand, we needed cooling foods to help us cope with the heat. So curd, which is not usually heated, was more useful than cream, which hardly features in Indian cooking.
But there is a second reason. In India, the healing power of foods has long been regarded as important and our diet incorporates many medicinal elements. I doubt if our ancient ancestors understood what bacteria were, but I imagine they had worked out that yoghurt helped with digestion. We know now that this is because the bacteria that turn milk into yoghurt also help fight infections in the intestine. In a hot country like India where stomach bugs were easy to pick up, yoghurt acted as an ancient antibiotic. That was why we rarely heated it (heat kills bacteria) and ate it as close to room temperature as possible.
That is a lesson that survived the millennia but one we now seem to be forgetting. Just as the rest of the world is discovering probiotics and the benefits of natural yoghurt, we have forgotten that our parents always made their own antibiotics. Fewer and fewer of us bother to make dahi at home any longer. Instead we buy the pasteurised (ie all bacteria destroyed) version from shops, not realising that this has zero medicinal effect. It has got to the stage where foreign companies are even trying to flog us natural bacteria-filled yoghurt at inflated prices because they know that we have turned our backs on our own traditions.
So, do yourself a favour. Remember what your parents taught you and make your dahi at home. You’ll end up with good Indian yoghurt, not some fancy Bulgarian version that will make you live till 100 or turn you into a sex god. But at least it will keep you healthy. And it will keep you in touch with the oldest Indian culinary tradition of them all.
From HT Brunch, October 7
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