Given the multifarious uses of dahi in Indian kitchens, one can't help wonder what we'd do without it.
I think many kitchens would collapse without dahi. We use it for a drink, as a marinade, as an accompaniment to meals, as a cooked main dish, as dessert. And forget kitchens and eating, we use it as an emollient and as a base for ubtans, face scrubs. Used on the scalp, it's said to be a more effective moisturiser than oil. I can't vouch for that because the smell is a deterrent; but it must be true, because, despite the smell, people use it again and again. It's so highly regarded that it even has a place in religious ceremonies.
In the West it's known as yoghurt, from the Turkish word; but it's originally a food from Asia. Here we call it “curd”, have been making and eating it for millennia, but it reached the West only in the 20th century and swiftly became a household essential. More Asians than Europeans are lactose-intolerant, and perhaps some of the popularity of dahi is due to the fact that the fermentation that produces yoghurt converts most of the lactose in milk to lactic acid.
One can imagine how yoghurt was first made: inadvertently. Unintended fermentation of milk could have produced something like it, and it must have become apparent that it kept longer — without spoiling — than milk. A variant is the “cheese” from hung yoghurt, which we use occasionally, but is a staple in the Middle East. In Lebanon, lebne (or labne, laban) is an imperishable commodity. Alan Davidson quotes Furugh Hourani, who describes the visit of the lebne merchant and his donkey. The donkey's panniers are heavy white cloth bags filled with the stuff. “Three or four hundred kilos a year was not an exceptional intake for one family.” After the lebne-merchant's visit, the women and girls of the family would gather around a scrubbed table and “put away” the shopping. They shaped the lebne into small balls, arranged them in covered trays and waited a couple of days for them to dry. Then they were filled into jars, topped with olive oil and kept for up to a year! In the mountains of Lebanon, not only are these balls served at every meal, they are also the children's school tiffin: “Spread on the paper-thin loaves of mountain bread they are carried by children going to school to be eaten on the way or during the lunch break.”
Our equivalent is hung yoghurt mixed with grated cucumber and used as a sandwich spread, but there are a myriad traditional recipes.
In the North dahi is used more often than tomatoes while cooking meat, and other than its taste, the reason could be its property as a marinade. I find hung yoghurt the best marinade for meats. Its water content has been largely gotten rid of, and it has the same effect as regular dahi: enzymes help to degrade or break down proteins, and the meat becomes tender through and through.
Kasmiri mutton yakhni has many variations. All include mutton and dahi, but the seasoning varies. One, with saffron, is said to be particularly beneficial in cold weather. And when I eat it, I always feel that the “soup” is far tastier than the mutton pieces. With apologies to traditional chefs, I present my version.
Shrikhand, or the mango variant, amrakhand, cannot be improved upon. But what do you do when strawberries are in season and mangoes aren't?
Yakhni: Hot Dahi Soup
250g mutton bones
2 cups water
1 black cardamom or 1 one-inch stick cinnamon
4 whole peppercorns
2 cups dahi, beaten smooth
2 green cardamoms
1 pinch saffron
Method: In a pressure cooker, add bones, water, salt, cinnamon and peppercorns. On high heat, bring to full pressure. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. When pressure subsides, pour contents into a pan, straining out the bones and spices. Heat the stock or “yakhni” in the pan. Crush seeds of cardamom and stir into yakhni with 6 strands of saffron. Pour in beaten dahi, stirring all the while. Take care not to let the soup come to a boil. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Ladle onto soup bowls and serve hot.
Makes approximately 1 litre
2 litres yoghurt made from full fat milk
500g ripe red strawberries
1-2 cups sugar, powdered
Method: Hang yoghurt 4-6 hours or overnight in the refrigerator. (Discard whey or use it to knead atta.) Process the drained yoghurt “cheese” in a blender until smooth.
Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Wash, hull and wipe strawberries. Reserve 10 strawberries. In the same jar of the blender, purée strawberries until smooth.
Pour into bowl containing hung dahi and stir in some powdered sugar. The quantity will depend on the tartness of your strawberries. Taste and add sugar if necessary. Return to jar of blender and whizz till smooth and uniformly pink.
Slice reserved strawberries longitudinally and arrange along the sides of a large glass bowl. Pour in strawberry-dahi mixture. Smooth over top and arrange more sliced strawberries on top. Cover and refrigerate.
In its smoothie avatar, the strawberry-yoghurt combination has replaced milkshakes, but this dessert is effectively pretty when you entertain, and I've often had reactions of disbelief when people discover the simplicity of the ingredients.
Since the dahi has been hung, it isn't runny; and since the dessert is served straight of a bowl without being turned out, it doesn't require gelatine to firm it up.
Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham's ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).