Monday, February 27, 2012

The Indian Lassi Wallah

Buttermilk or yogurt drinks helps counter hot and spicy dishes. Dairy products neutralize the capsaicin compounds that make chiles hot, one reason frothed yogurt accompanies many Indian meals. When made with buttermilk they are called chaas. If made with yogurt, lassi. Both are similar to aryan, a thin yogurt drink that spread from Persia throughout the Middle East. In ancient India diluted, salted yogurt called ghola was taken as a medicinal drink. In Jaipur yogurt drinks do more than aid digestion. There is stretch of Mirza Ismail Road in the New City lined with gem stores, bookshops and lassi wallah stalls. Deals on diamond, rubies and sapphires are sweetened with as many complementary lassis as it takes, delivered in clay tumblers from the nearby stalls. The lassi wallahs blend yogurt made from water buffalo milk with sugar and crushed ice, topping the beverage with a dollop of the thick top layer of cream from the bowls of set yogurt. They also make namkeen lassi with salt and roasted cumin. In the Punjab both butter and the by-product of churning it, buttermilk are served with most meals. Butter is slathered on hot bread while frothed salted and spiced buttermilk is sipped with the meal and as a refreshing digestive. Real buttermilk is thin watery whey and only available if you churn your own butter. Commercial buttermilk is quite different and much thicker with a decided tang people either love or detest. If buttermilk is too tangy for your taste, use plain yogurt. If making lassi with yogurt, I use natural whole milk yogurt as I like the creaminess but, if you prefer, use low fat yogurt. The contrast of creamy cold buttermilk spiked with the subtle fruity heat of black pepper and warm earthy cumin is very satisfying. Black salt adds an alluring tang, but is not necessary to make the drink. You may wish to add a little more salt if not using black salt. The curry leaves add a subtle truffle-citrus perfume but are not crucial. Feel free to add chopped coriander (cilantro), mint and a seeded green chile for a spicier version. Whirl and serve poured from the blender while still foamy.


2 1/2 cups buttermilk (or plain yogurt)
4 large ice cubes
1/4 teaspoonsea salt crystals or to taste
3-4 whole black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
6 fresh curry leaves, stripped from the stem, optional

MIXING THE BUTTERMILK. Pour the buttermilk into the jar of a blender. Add the ice and salt. Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat. Drop in the peppercorns, cumin and curry leaves (if using). Roast until the cumin darkens a shade, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add the roasted spices to the buttermilk and whirl on high until the ice is crushed and the drink is slightly frothed, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes (use the frappe setting if your blender has one). Pour in tall glasses and serve, dusted with a little ground cumin.

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