Nothing makes me happier than a perfect pot of yoghurt set to the right consistency and taste. And nothing makes me happier on a hot summer day than thayir saadam aka curd rice. That prompted me to write this nostalgic piece!
I am so happy I grew up in a Tam Brahm household surrounded by people who extolled the virtues of curd rice- Thayir saadam. I ate it I am sure before my teeth cut through my gums and grew up believing that "thachi mammam" (an endearing way of referring to it) was the next best thing to mother's milk. It was etched in my brain that I could only achieve my full potential if I ate it with every meal. I carried it my lunch box every day along with all other tam brahm kids, often envious of kids who brought jam sandwiches or spicy delicacies with rice or roti. Oh and we never stepped onto a train, when setting out on long journeys, without a big vessel filled with thayir saadam to go with our idlis and spicy powder. When we went for our summer holidays to our village in the deep South, the older folks' only means to quieten the house, so they could take their afternoon naps, was thayir saadam. We would be made to sit in a circle holding out our hands as curd rice was ladled onto our palms. We would slurp it in with a spicy side strategically placed on each mouthful. Favourite sides were, sambar (lentil stew) and pickles.
Before the availability of the range of foods we have today, thayir saadam was the householder's dream food because of its versatility. It was easy to make and added volume as the delicious closer to every meal. It also served as a sole operator, that essential filler, the emergency dish that people conjured up in a jiffy to quell hunger, cool, comfort, heal the body or quieten restless kids on hot summer afternoons. Never mind dinner at a fancy Punjabi Restaurant, we always came home to a bowl of curd rice. We would otherwise have to wake up for a drink of water since any other food would dehydrate our bodies, or so we believed. Every respectable tam brahm household I knew in India carried a supply of curd or buttermilk and enough culture to make the next pot. If people did not have curds at home, well they were sorely lacking. In fact, you often decided if you wanted to eat at someone's house, depending on the quality of their curd. If it was thick, fresh and creamy - well their culinary skills could be relied upon when it came to everything else. If not, you had to wonder. As a kid I used to love lunch at those hotels where they served chilled yoghurt which was individually set in small steel cups. We mixed this in with the rice and ate it with great relish. This for us was better than dessert and the highlight of our meal! Even at age 4, I was discerning enough to label a cousin who did not eat curd rice a wierdo. In short, a love of thayir saadam was part of our DNA. Even Utta who grew up in North America and who shuns all other forms of Indian food experiences, satiates her thayir saadam cravings every once in a while.
However, we thayir saadam eaters were often labelled lily livered cowards who did not have the physical fortitude or endurance of our non thayir saadam eating compatriots. We fit the nerd culture of the weak kneed who were only fit to solve Math problems and do little else. And yet we have remained loyal, even addicted to all the wonderful sensations this ultimate comfort food engenders. We still believe we owe our smarts, our calm demeanour and our sound sleep to it. We can all vouch for its soothing qualities when all other foods are anathema to us on an upset stomach.
Today, dressed up in finery including grapes and other such delicacies, our humble friend masquerades as Bagala baath at weddings and parties. Despite its many incarnations, it will always be Thayir Saadam to me.
Given this, you can appreciate what it meant for me to make the perfect bowl of curd. I carried my mother's culture all the way from India and have now perfected yoghurt making to a fine art! Following is a description of my process and a recipe for a respectable version of Thayir saadam that you can serve to your venturesome guests who dont have a clue what it is.
To make a perfect pot of curd
Boil about a litre and a quarter of milk for 14 minutes in the microwave. Let it cool till it is still warm to the touch. Add a 2 tablespoons of culture and place in the oven with the light on. Alternatively, preheat the oven and place it in a warm oven. The trick is to keep it airtight. So I cover it with a plate and then place a heavy pan on it. In about 4 - 5 hours your yoghurt is ready. It is important to place it in the fridge soon after it is set. If the water is beginning to separate out then its been out too long and it will begin to sour. A few tries and a fervent intention to get the perfect pot is all you need. Store bought yoghurt is not great culture - maybe the probiotic variety is. It is best to start with culture from someone who has it! Enjoy