Buttermilk in the South, lassi, mattha, chaas, doi pani elsewhere. Across the world too, people have so many fermented milk drinks in their food tradition
This happened to a journalist friend from east India some years ago. New to Delhi then, and living on oily dhaba food, he set off with a colleague one day to discover the inexpensive and wholesome food at the once-so-popular UNI canteen on Rafi Marg — at a stone’s throw from his work place then. A man on a nearby table, set under a tree on the back lawns of the news agency office, was devouring on a white gooey rice based meal which to this journalist looked like payesh. Immediately, he thought of home, craved for a spoonful of it. And after a plateful of pongal served with savoury chips, he pointed at the white dish to a waiter, asking him to serve it to him too. One spoonful and his face became an expression of sheer disgust at being ‘wronged’.
Well, he never touched thayir sadam thereafter, a dish that is so dear to me. I particularly like it served with aloo bhaja or a plate of crispy prawns.
Anyway, why I thought of this thayir sadam ‘story’ was because I was also thinking of buttermilk, yet another South Indian speciality. On a Delhi summer day, it can be my meal. Straight out of a refrigerator, it is so refreshing; the curry leaf paste mixed in it brings out such a bracing aroma. I am sure for many of you, a meal at a Saravana Bhavan outlet is incomplete without a tall glass of buttermilk.
On seeing the bigger picture, it is interesting to note that almost every part of India has its equivalent of buttermilk. Chaas, lassi, mattha, doi pani, ghol, their taste may vary a bit depending on the ingredients put in them but the base is the same — curd. The reasons are same too — for digestion, for refreshment in summers.
Also, like there is a buttermilk version spiked with spices, so are lassis blended with seasonal fruits, particularly the mango. And also fresh herbs, like mint or coriander. Also honey. And we all know about the special bhang lassi, popular during Holi. In Gujarat and Rajasthan, there is chaas paired with a meal to help digestion. In parts of Rajasthan, you will find a saffron lassi too. Add a lump of butter on top of the lassi and it becomes makhaniya. Long ago, on a trip to Varanasi, I remember sipping a sweet thick lassi from a cold kulhar. Then, one summer day, not so long ago, I can also recall queuing up in front of a shop in Bareilly just because some locals told us it is not worth a visit to their town if we don’t taste the lassi from that shop.
In east India, doi pani is a common hot-weather refreshment and digestive besides nimboo pani. I am happy to discover the better versions after drinking a rather bland doi pani all my childhood but the reasons for having the brew there too is the same.
It is even more interesting to note that not just in India, in so many parts of the world, a milk based drink is such a tradition. Throughout Turkey, you would get Ayran, a variant of a yogurt-based salty drink found across Central Asia, the Middle East, the Balkans and South-eastern Europe. Then there is doogh in Iran. History says doogh has been a popular drink since the ancient times in Persia. In doogh, the yogurt is blended with mint. There is also kefir, a fermented milk drink mixed with kewra seeds. It is a traditional drink in the Caucasus. And according to Wikipedia, Marco Polo talked about coming across kefir during his travels there. Filmjolk in Sweden, Clabber in the U.S…there are so many more such drinks drunk traditionally. Driving home the point that milk and milk-based products have been a part of food across the world for so long. Closely linked to the Neolithic Revolution or development of agriculture. Though this development happened independently in various parts of the world, it nevertheless makes the world one.
About my thayir sadam hating friend, I have no complaint as long as he loves his payesh. After all, in the goodness of milk — the fundamental ingredient in both, we happily agree.