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CUISINE

Dollops of yogurt

A collection of recipes that does justice to the versatility of yogurt.


CULINARY history is dotted with instances/accidents with happy endings. A classic example, of course, is the origin of the all-time favourite Crepe Suzette. History has it that on one occasion when Edward VII, Prince of Wales, ordered Chef Henri Charpentiere for a dish of crepe, the latter was determined to impress his royal patron with something truly special. But he got rather carried away by his enthusiasm to make a sauce that would really stand out and the result was that the cordial-rich sauce caught fire.

Desperately, the chef plunged the crepes into the boiling liquid, doused the entire melange with more alcohol, let the whole thing go aflame and, unwilling to make His Royal Highness wait any longer, rushed the dish to the table. The Prince was charmed and decreed that this spectacular dish be named after his host's daughter: Suzette.

There are many other such examples, but for us in India, it's specially interesting to know that yogurt — that indispensable, ubiquitious feature of the Great Indian Kitchen — also came to be quite by accident. According to historians, yogurt making probably originated with nomadic tribes in the Balkans thousands of years ago when on a warm night, some "friendly bacteria" (Lactobacillus acidophilus and Streptococcus lactis to their scientific pals) worked their magic on a bowl of leftover milk, transforming it to semi-solid, creamy consistency, with that prized sweetly acidic, mild flavour. The nomads of course, were quick to realise that this was the answer to the problem of milk preservation and from there to the cooking pots was a matter of time.

Bapsi Nariman's Cooking with Yogurt is, to quote the author, "an experiment with yogurt as a culinary act". At first, an entire book dedicated to yogurt-based recipes may seem excessive, but what one has to keep in mind is yogurt's long and varied history that has inevitably given rise to countless dishes that depend on the addition — sometimes of a dollop and sometimes much more — of this dairy product. In India alone, records of yogurt making go back thousands of years.

Ancient texts describe a range of "starters" to get those bacteria to do their thing, including the Ber fruit and the bark of the Palash tree. In fact, curd may be one of our oldest foods as it finds regular mention in the Vedic texts. The Rig Veda talks about Karambha, a dish akin to curd rice of today.

And documents dating even further back speak of curds mixed with staple barley dishes.

The raitas that adorn Indian tables can claim a heritage that goes back to at least the 12th Century when we find curd spiked with mustard seeds, pepper and cinnamon and served as an accompaniment to other dishes. And whether in the pages of the Artha Shastra or in Akbar's kitchen (as documented in the Ain-I-Akbari) yogurt was used as a tenderising marinade.

Nariman's collection of recipes does justice to the versatility of yogurt. Beginning with simple instructions on yogurt-making (including how to make the famous Bengali mishti doi at home) she moves steadily through raitas, lassis, salads, soups, chicken, fish and meat dishes, vegetable preparations, paneer dishes, rice and pulaos, curries and dals. She goes on to a number of western preparations (mousses, pancakes, pies and omlettes) that can be made with yogurt, as well as desserts, dips, dressings, biscuits and pastries.

Adding value to this vast range is her focus on making her recipes "slimmer-friendly" and "do-able" in the microwave. In fact, in many of the dishes, especially the quiches and souffles, yogurt is a substitute for cream.

The traditional and the trendy combine in Nariman's recipes. For instance, there's Dahi Kachori, Dahi Macchi and Peas and Panir Curry but also Tori Quiche and Cooked Yogurt Cheesecake. The dips, dressings and sauces are especially worth noting — they are creative, yet simple, and often combine interesting, if unusual, flavours.

The book also provides many useful tips for first-time cooks. What sets this recipe collection apart from most others of its kind are the history bytes that Nariman inserts from time to time.

The quality of production, unfortunately, does not match the richness of the text. The photographs are of indifferent quality, the layout and design clumsy and amateurish. Fortunately, the colour plates are not too many in number and do not succeed in jeopardising the overall value of the book. And indeed the book is a useful and interesting addition to any kitchen library.

ARUNDHATI RAY

Cooking with Yogurt: Recipes for Slimmers and Microwave

Users, Bapsi Nariman, Rupa and Co., Rs. 295.

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