How quickly we give up age-old traditions in the praxis of food and succumb to the allure of convenience, shortcuts and beautiful finished products. I’m talking about ancient dahi or cottage cheese. In my grandmother’s house where I lived for the first 15 years of my life and even when we moved the lock stock and tapelic to where my parents made their new home, dahi was always made in the kitchen. It was a daily process. Every day milk would be boiled and cooled to room temperature. A medium-bottomed pan is greased with that of the previous day dahi, which acted as a bacterial curd starter, and would pour the boiled warm milk. A wet cloth kept the milk covered while nature created magic, fermented the milk, added deliciously healthy probiotic properties, thickened it and set it on curds. It would take four to five hours on a normal warm, hot and humid Mumbai day, eight to 12 hours in cold weather, that’s it.
Sometimes we would make curds twice a day, just to have it fresh. There was also a sort of romantic uncertainty about how good the curds would turn out. Sometimes it could sit loosely, separating the water from the milk and sometimes it would be firm and silky. After all, milk was not homogenized, standardized and bought in a carton, but bought at the door at a doodhwala, whose honesty was always in question. So it is clear that the better the milk, the better the curds. The jar of milk with the curd starter would always be kept in a warm place and most importantly left alone. An old lady’s tale was that you could add a green chill with the stem intact to help the curds set faster. Ostensibly, the chill with the stem would not impart any flavor, but contained certain bacteria that activated the milk to produce protein curds that turned milk into curds more quickly. I had never actually seen that happen in any of our kitchens.
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This homemade dahi was consumed in various ways. Natural, on its own, with added sugar. It was the best fake dessert, complete with a nice crunch, if the dahi had been chilled and the sugar crystals hadn’t had time to melt into the curds. we have consumed dahi with fruit for breakfast, or as a ‘bee’ at the thali to reduce the impact of spicy curries, and always as a digestive after a heavy meal.
dahi was used in raita and kachumbermainly Khamang Kakdic, a classic Maharashtrian salad made with finely sliced crunchy cucumber, roasted peanuts with a temper of mustard seeds, curry leaves and asafoetida, mixed with a few spoonfuls of curd and garnished with grated coconut and coriander. Dahi was also churned and thinned into buttermilk and eaten as ‘task’ or chaaswith the occasional addition of jeera, or green chillies or coriander or even grated cucumber and garlic. I used thick curds of course to make my own version of sweet lassiwith tons of ice cream in a blender and often my all-time favorite food essence, vanilla.
To make dahi during festivals was mandatory because no pooja was complete without ‘panchamrut’a mix of dahisugar, milk, ghee and honey, like no festival meal without shrikhand and puris† And no doubt no real Maharashtrian household bought at that time shrikhand from the store, it was always made at home and shrikhand also started making of dahi† A pot of curd was fermented, set and then hung in a muslin cloth with the whey collected below. When the moisture from the curds had gone and the hung curds crumbled, sugar was added and mixed in a now obsolete machine my grandmother used. It was a large metal sieve bowl with a wooden grinding ball on a handle. With vigorous circular motions, the suspended curd and sugar would be grated resolutely and a luxuriously smooth shrikhand would come out of the bottom of the sieve. To which my grandmother lovingly added strands of saffron soaked in milk and cardamom and nutmeg and chopped almonds and pistachios. The taste of that shrikhand is still in my mouth and mind even after all these years.
dahi was also part of our occasional chaat habit. There’s something about a Dahi Batata Pooric that makes it less of a north indian chaat and more a creation from Mumbai. puffed paani pooris stuffed with mashed potatoes and boiled moong, sweet tamarind chutney, sprinkled with cumin, coriander and chilly powder and topped with chopped coriander leaves and topped with really smooth and cold whipped curds. Sit and eat that Dahi Batata Pooric at either the Hindu Gymkhana grounds facing the sea or Shetty’s in Nana Chowk, or Shobha Hotel in the Mahalakshmi Temple was so bambaiya like a Bhel Puric† Like eating a Dahi Misal, the kind you get at the iconic Prakash Shakahari Upahaar Kendra in Shivaji Park. The Dahi MisalI’m sure Mumbai was the way to balance the intensity and backlash of chill and spice with the coolness and calm of curd, unlike the Kolhapuri and Nashik version of the angry fiery misal†
dahi or curd is also one of those rare Indian foods, or should I say ingredients, which unite the different eating habits and culinary choices of the north and south of our country. where there is chaat† lassi† raita† bhallas† dahi-kadhis, kebab, breading and curd marinated meat in Kashmir, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat. The South has their famous Thayir Sadami – curd rice tempered with herbs – or the classic Mor Kuzhambua creamy traditional South Indian yogurt and coconut curry or simply the green coconut and curd chutney that goes perfectly with a idli† dosa or medu wada†
With temperatures soaring this season, I realize we’ve all started eating more curd in its many forms, or at least I have. It is good for immunity, the probiotic properties benefit gut health, it helps people with high blood pressure and is really cooling in the summer. Unfortunately, what my kitchen has lost is making the dahi At home. The infallible, perfectly set, immaculate panna cotta-style curds, now available in tubs, has in a way taken away the romance of making curds at home, but can we resist the temptation of convenience, shortcuts and beautifully finished? Products? I often can’t.
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Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer from Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of this publication.
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