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What The Fork: Kunal Vijayakar on the Perfect Summer Food to Beat the Heat

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How soon we renounce age-old traditions in the praxis of food, and succumb to the allure of convenience, short cuts, and finished good-looking products. I’m talking about age old dahi or curd. In my grandmother’s home where I lived for the first 15 years of my life and even when we moved lock stock and tapeli 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-heavy bottomed pot would be greased with the previous day’s dahi, which worked like a bacterial curd starter, and the boiled warm milk would be poured in. A wet cloth kept the milk covered as nature created magic, fermented the milk, added wonderfully healthy probiotic characteristics, thickened it and set it to curd. It would take four to five hours on a normal warm, hot and humid Mumbai day, eight to 12 in cold weather, that was it.

Sometimes we’d make curd two times a day, just to be able to have it fresh. There was also a kind of romantic uncertainty about how well the curd would set. Sometimes it could set loosely, separating the water from the milk and sometimes it would be firm and silky. After all milk wasn’t bought homogenised, standardised and in a carton, but was bought at the doorstep from a doodhwala, whose honesty was always in question. So obviously, the the better the milk the better the curd. The pot of milk with the curd starter would always be kept in a warm place and most importantly left alone. One old ladies’ tale was that you could add a green chilly with its stem intact to help the curd set faster. Ostensibly, the chilly with the stem would not impart any taste but contained certain bacteria that activated the milk to produce protein curdles that turned milk into curd faster. I’d actually never seen that happening in any of our kitchens.

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This homemade dahi was consumed in several ways. Of course, by itself, with sugar added. It was the best faux dessert, complete with a nice crunch if the dahi had been refrigerated and the sugar crystals hadn’t had the time to melt in the curd. We consumed dahi with fruit for breakfast, or as a ‘side’ on the thali to lessen the impact of spicy curries, and always as a digestive after a heavy meal.

Dahi was used in raita and kachumber, especially Khamang Kakdi, a classical Maharashtrian salad made with finely diced crunchy cucumber, roasted peanuts with a tempering of mustard seeds, curry leaves and asafoetida, mixed with a few spoons of curd and garnished with grated coconut and coriander. Dahi was also churned and thinned down to buttermilk and chugged down as ‘taak’ or chaas, with the occasional addition of jeera, or green chillies or coriander or even grated cucumber and garlic. I, of course, used thick curd to make my own version of sweet lassi, with tonnes of ice in a blender and often added my all-time favourite food essence, vanilla.

Making dahi during festivals was obligatory because no pooja was complete without ‘panchamrut’, a mixture of dahi, sugar, milk, ghee and honey, as was no festival meal without shrikhand and puris. And unquestionably in those days, no true Maharashtrian household bought shrikhand from the shop, it was always made at home and shrikhand too started with the making of dahi. A potful of curd was fermented, set and then hung out in a muslin cloth with the whey collecting below. Then after the moisture from the curd vanished and the hung curd crumbled, sugar was added and mixed in a now-antiquated contraption my grandmom used. It was a large metal netted sieve bowl with a wooden grinder ball attached to a handle. With vigorous circular movements, the hung curd and sugar would be resolutely rasped, and a luxuriously smooth shrikhand would emerge from the bottom of the sieve. To which my grandmother would lovingly add milk-soaked saffron strands and cardamom and nutmeg and finely chopped almonds and pistachios. The taste of that shrikhand still lingers in my mouth and mind, even after all those years.

Dahi was also part of our occasional chaat habit. There is something about a Dahi Batata Poori that makes it less of a North Indian chaat and more a Mumbai creation. Puffed paani pooris stuffed with mashed potato and boiled moong, sweet tamarind chutney, sprinkled with cumin, coriander and chilly powder and garnished with chopped coriander leaves and covered in really smooth and cold beaten curd. Sitting and eating that Dahi Batata Poori at either the sea-facing Hindu Gymkhana grounds or Shetty’s at Nana Chowk, or Shobha Hotel at Mahalakshmi Temple was as bambaiya as a Bhel Puri. As was eating a Dahi Misal, the kind you get at the iconic Prakash Shakahari Upahaar Kendra at Shivaji Park. The Dahi Misal, I am sure, was Mumbai’s way of balancing the intensity and backlash of chilly and spices with the coolness and composure 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 may I say ingredients, that actually unite the diverse eating habits and culinary choices of the North and the South of our country. Where there is chaat, lassi, raita, bhallas, dahi-kadhis, kebabs, paneer- and curd marinated meats in Kashmir, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat. The South has their famed Thayir Sadam – curd-rice tempered with spices – or the classic Mor Kuzhambu, a creamy traditional South Indian yogurt and coconut-based curry or just the green coconut and curd chutney that is the perfect accompaniment to an idli, dosa or medu wada.

As the temperatures soar this season, I realise that we have all started eating more curd in its many forms, or at least I have. It is good for immunity, its probiotic qualities benefit gut health, it helps those with high blood pressure and is really cooling in the summer. Unfortunately, what my kitchen has lost out on is making the dahi at home. The foolproof, perfectly set, immaculate panna cotta-like curd, now available in tubs, has in a way taken away the romance of curd-making at home, but then can we resist the allure of convenience, short cuts and finished good-looking products? I often can’t.

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Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in 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 stand of this publication.

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