Gourmet Files: Vasundhara Chauhan

Time for raita

The variety is endless but the crucial ingredient is good dahi.  

It’s getting to be warm and, as usual, it’s that time of year when winter vegetables are on the wane and summer produce is still just coming in. I usually prefer plain dahi with Indian food but raita makes a refreshing change. Raita, raitha, pacchadi, kacholi, kocchumber is eaten in every part of India. Most of us in the North vary it with tomatoes, cucumber, mint or boondi, sometimes potatoes; but look a little wider and you there are even bananas and pumpkin. And with more imagination there can be pomegranate, spinach and mangoes. Basically any vegetable or fruit that can we eat can be “dressed” and eaten in a raita. I draw the line at meat, but I have a cousin for whom chicken raita was made in her natal home.

The variety is endless but the crucial ingredient is good dahi, preferably made at home. Sometimes homemade dahi can be so watery, barely “set”, that it’s hard to swallow. And I don’t know which is worse — the unset, milky stuff or the over-set, which can be so tart that it sets your teeth on edge. With little bits of fake malai that make you want to hurl (why not strain the milk?).

I cannot understand why making standardised, perfect dahi day after day is such an issue. When the solution is absolutely simple. A dictum my mother gave me when I set up home was: “The dahi is alive. It needs as much warmth to thrive as you do. Heat it to a little over body temperature, pour onto the jamun or starter, and cover with a quilt in winter and nothing in summer. After three or four hours remove all the ‘bedclothes’ and put it in the fridge to chill.” I’ve adapted her advice and use a plump old tea-cosy in winter and a cloth in summer. And three to four hours are just right. A lot of people believe in overnight “setting” — in fact in my grandmother’s house we’d all be assembled at the table, waiting for lunch, and it would be served with warm dahi! Because it never set and she wanted to do crisis management by keeping it in what she called the “hot case”: an iron cabinet between two coal choolhas which stayed warm around the clock. No wonder, having been brought up in that home, my mother made the effort to crack the science behind bacteria and fermentation, and figure out a practical explanation and a sure-fire recipe for perfect dahi.  

Raita is what traditional North Indian homes serve at night because it is said that it’s easier to digest and its  taseer is neutral, unlike plain dahi. The family’s old vaid used to say that dahi could be eaten at night if some sanskars, rituals, had been performed. So raita it is, especially with a vegetarian meal.

The etymology of raita is hard to source but since the traditional tool used to whip dahi smooth is called a rai in Hindi (what we Punjabis call a madani or mathani, to make mattha), there could be a verb that transforms and connects rai to raita. Another view, probably the correct one, is that the term for this relish comes from a combination of rai, the spice, and tikta or teekha, sharp (the taste); from Sanskrit * râjikâtiktaka, mustard pickle: râjikâ, black mustard.

Some of these recipes call for rai, mustard, in the tempering, some for roasted and ground zeera, cumin, and some for neither. Neither is sacrosanct. The essentials are good dahi and refreshing, flavourful vegetables or fruit, with the barest minimum seasoning.



Serves 6

1 tsp vegetable oil

1/2 tsp mustard seeds ( kali sarson)

1/4 tsp fenugreek ( methi dana)

A pinch of turmeric powder ( haldi)

8-10 curry leaves

2 mangoes, peeled and sliced into fingers (about 3”x1”)


4 cups dahi

1/2 tsp red chilli powder

Sugar (optional)

Heat oil and prepare tempering: sauté sarson seeds till they splutter, add fenugreek seeds, turmeric and curry leaves. Stir in salt and mango pieces, including the stone if you like. Cover and cook over low heat until mango is tender but not too soft. Turn off heat and stir in dahi. Add chilli powder, and some sugar if the mangos aren’t sweet enough.


Serves 4

1 medium aubergine ( baingan), about 200g




3 cups dahi


1 tsp roast cumin, ground

1 cup sonth (sweet and sour tamarind chutney)

Slice aubergine into circles, about 1/2 inch thick. Make a pakora batter with besan and water; coat aubergine slices and shallow fry till golden. Dry on absorbent kitchen-paper towel and arrange in a serving dish. Beat dahi with roasted cumin ( bhuna zeera) and salt. Just before serving, pour dahi over aubergine fritters and top with a liberal helping of sonth.

To keep the baingan fritters crisp, serve separately.

The aubergine can be roasted whole, then peeled, mashed and mixed with the dahi. Sonth can be served on the side.


Serves 4

1 tsp vegetable oil

1/2 tsp cumin seeds ( zeera)

2-3 dry red chillies, whole

4 cloves garlic (optional)

1 pinch asafoetida ( hing)

1/2 cup coconut, grated (optional)

1 cup spinach, chopped, blanched and squeezed

3 cups dahi


Heat oil and sauté cumin. Add red chillies, garlic and asafoetida. After a few seconds stir in coconut, if using, and then the spinach. Remove from heat, cool and stir to loosen clumps. Meanwhile beat dahi with salt till smooth. Stir in spinach mixture and chill. Substitute spinach with bathua in winter.


Serves 4

3 cups dahi


2 tbsp green chutney

To be ground together

1 bunch fresh green coriander

10 cloves garlic, peeled

4 green chillies, seeded

Seeds from 1 pomegranate

Beat dahi till smooth, add salt. Stir in green chutney and chill. Just before serving, stir in pomegranate seeds, reserving a handful to sprinkle on top.

Fresh mint leaves ( pudina), ground to a paste, can be used instead of coriander

Vary the pomegranate with orange segments, with the inner membrane removed.

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Printable version | Nov 23, 2021 11:33:07 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Vasundhara_Chauhan/time-for-raita/article7018586.ece

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