Milk is eaten in some form in every part of India. Milk is drunk on its own or flavoured with spices, flowers and herbs. It is also made into products that are curdled, as in paneer or chhena, non-curdled, such as ghee and khoya (made by cooking milk until it solidifies), or fermented, as in yogurt.
Dairy products have a special place in Hindu religious ritual. The cow, as a giver of milk, is considered sacred. In a ritual called ‘Abhisheka’, images or idols of gods and goddesses are bathed with water, yogurt, milk, honey, rose water and perfume. Milk becomes a part of the blessed food ‘panchamrit’ or five nectars: milk, yogurt, honey, ghee and sugar syrup.
Regional food practices in India vary depending on many factors, including the climate. In south India, which is close to the Equator, yogurt is eaten with every meal, whereas in north India, which has cooler weather, people believe that yogurt should not be eaten during cold evenings. Much of the southern peninsula drinks a light, digestive drink called ‘chaas’, ‘mor’ or ‘taak’, which is made with yogurt and water. The north drinks a heavier version of this called ‘lassi’. Rajasthan, a desert state, has camel dairy farms and the milk as well as milk products such as ice cream are consumed.
Cream is considered a luxurious ingredient in the cooking. In restaurant curries, the word ‘shahi’ or royal, often denotes the presence of cream. Shahi Paneer, Shahi Kofta and Shahi Tukde, a bread-based dessert, are all rich and creamy dishes.
Most milk is delivered each morning. It has to be boiled before being cooled and refrigerated. The cooling milk develops a skin of cream called ‘malai’ or ‘saay’ and the fattier the milk is, the denser this layer will be. Buffalo milk produces a thick layer of cream. When this milk is refrigerated, the layer of cream becomes even denser.
Homemade butter, called ‘makhhan’ or ‘loni’, is a delicacy. It is soft and white and is traditionally eaten with breads like ‘Makke ki roti’ (Punjabi corn bread) or ‘Bhakri’ (Maharashtrian millet bread).
Although packs of commercial yellow butter are available, many homes also make their own. This is because homemade butter is further cooked into ghee. Cream or ‘malai’ is collected over a few days and a starter culture of yogurt is added to it. When the full-fat yogurt has set, it is churned with a wooden instrument called a ‘ravi’, ‘mathani’ or ‘ghotni’.
This is a slim stick with a wooden star-shaped churning bit on one end. The stick is held between the wooden star-shaped churning bit on one end. The stick is held between the palms and rolled in small semi-circular movements. Where the quantity of cream is large, the stick is coiled into a rope that is pulled one end at a time to create the same movement. This movement separates the butter, the liquid left behind is buttermilk called ‘chhaas’ or ‘mattha’. This is sometimes used to make a yogurt curry called ‘kadhi’ or drunk on its own, seasoned with salt or flavoured with fresh coriander and chilli.
Ghee is clarified butter that is made by cooking butter to evaporate any moisture and caramelise the milk solids that can be strained off. Traditional Hindu cookery differentiates between ‘kaccha’ and ‘pukka’ foods, kaccha being those that were cooked in water and were to be consumed in the kitchen. Pukka foods were cooked in ghee and could be taken out of the kitchen for public consumption. These rules were based more on health, hygiene and practicality but, in time, became religious practices of purity. This is why temple foods that are distributed to devotees or sweets that can be bought from shops are cooked in ghee and are often very sweet.
Ayurvedic healing considers ghee to be strengthening and digestive. Some western research shows that eating a little bit of ghee, typically less than a couple of tablespoons a day, can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, but increasing this amount can lead to elevated cholesterol levels.
Yogurt, ‘dahi’ or ‘tayir’ as it is called, is integral to the food. In north India, tt is used to make lassi or raita or eat it with breads called paratha, whereas in the south they finish each meal with tayir and rice. Yogurt is also called curd.
The taste and texture of yogurt is important. The most preferred one is mildly tart but with a sweetness that ‘quenches the thirst’. It should be thick and not watery. The microflora in yogurt help digestion and in many parts, a meal is concluded with a thin drink called ‘chaas’ made by mixing a little yogurt with water. ‘Chaas’ is also the name given to the buttermilk left behind when butter is churned out of yogurt or cream.
Paneer is the most commonly used cheese in the cooking. It is an unaged, non-melting, salt-free cheese that is made both at home as well as commercially.
Surti paneer is made in the western state of Gujarat - this is coagulated with rennet and matured in its whey. It is mostly sold locally. Fresh cheese is called ‘chhena’ or ‘chhana’. The Bengalis found that the unsalted curd could be kneaded and made into various sweets by adding sugar and spices and, today, Bengali milk sweets are some of the best-known desserts in the country.
When ‘chhena’, which is crumbly, is pressed under heavy weights, it loses most of its moisture to become a firm, dense cheese called paneer.
Variously known as ‘khoya’, ‘khava’, ‘khoa’, ‘mava’ or ‘khuvaa’, this is made by cooking full-fat milk, either cow’s or buffalo’s, until the moisture evaporates and concentrated milk solids are left behind. It is used to thicken some rich, festive curries and more importantly for making homemade and commercial sweets called ‘mithai’ and ‘burfi’.
The technique of boiling the milk over a well regulated heat is important so that the milk does not caramelise or burn. Pure khoya is white or pale yellow in colour. Equally important is the stirring and scraping the solids from the sides of the pan back into the mixture.
Traditionally khoya can be made in three forms - ‘batti khoya’ is the hardest, ‘daan-e-daar’ (‘granular’) is medium soft and chewy, and ‘chikna’ (‘sticky’) has the highest moisture content.
Batti Khoya: Also called pindi khoya, this is formed when the milk is reduced until it is very dry. It is then rolled into a dough, or blocks that can be grated. The dense texture makes it perfect for sweets such as Gulab Jamun, where it is mixed with wheat flour or semolina, fried as small balls, then steeped in sweetened rose water.
Daan-e-daar khoya: This form is moister than batti and is made by stopping the cooking before the mixture reaches the ‘batti’ stage. Sweets such as ‘kalakand’ are made by combining this khoya with sugar, spices and nuts, making the most of the granular texture.
Chikna khoya: This is the most moist, sticky form of khoya, also known as ‘dhap’. It is made by stopping cooking earlier than for batti or daan-e-daar khoya. Its smooth consistency is used in recipes for ‘halwa’ or fudge and milky desserts.