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Naked Yoghurt 

The secret ingredient in Indian food

click to enlarge Yoghurt sauce with cucumbers, mint, and spices. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.
  • Yoghurt sauce with cucumbers, mint, and spices. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

I was 21 years old, and had never cooked a thing. There I was in Manhattan, part of the FLUXUS school of avant-garde composers and artists, acolytes to John Cage. And because Cage was into Indian food (in 1960, virtually unknown in the United States), we all were into Indian food.

In the New York of that time, we were in the best possible place to eat good ethnic food for very little money -- Jewish delis, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Greek; it was a time to be young and poor in Manhattan, and I was lucky enough to be both.

But the others were nothing compared with Indian restaurants. There were in Harlem, on 125th Street, tiny Indian/Pakistani restaurants located under residential buildings, all superb, all cheap: for $1.25 you got a plate with your choice of meat, a spicy legume soup, rice and bread. If this sounds uninspiring, consider that the meat could be Lamb Vindaloo, the soup Channa Dal, the bread house-baked Paratha (a kind of puff pastry). All were served with a thin, dark-green puree (coriander/mint chutney) and a sweet tangy mango chutney. But for 25 cents more, there was Lemon Pickle.

Please indulge me while I rhapsodize about lemon pickle. You can get it in jars at Indian markets, but we still make our own. It is, I guess, an acquired taste, but its intense salt-fermented lemon-skin, sour with lemon juice, intensified by chilies and mustard oil, makes other chutneys and kim-chees seem monochromatic. As I said, fermented, not cooked. Here's what my 1960 remaindered 50-cent copy of Savitri Chowdhary's Indian Cooking says:

Cut young limes or lemons into squares; leave the skin and pulp, but remove all pips, taking care to catch the juice in a bowl. Heat one tablespoonful mustard oil in a saucepan; add turmeric, salt, anis seed, crushed mustard seeds, crumbled dried red or green chilies, and garam masala (home-made curry powder), and simmer a couple minutes. Mix the fruit with this oily mixture, shake well, and transfer the pickle into a glass jar. Cover well, and keep in a warm place for a week or two (in the sun if possible), shaking it every day, and adding more mustard oil, so the pickle is well saturated.

Chowdhary was my guru. From her, I found that Indian food was actually very easy to cook. To start with, it's very forgiving, unlike other cuisines -- if you're out of a critical ingredient or herb, it doesn't ruin the dish. And unlike classic French, there is no real consensus about what is required, compounded by the fact that there are actually at least six different regional cuisines. Happily, my little book was enough for me to start learning the principles of cooking.

But there was one thing in the cookbook that baffled me. It often called for meats and chicken to be marinated in "milk-curd." What the hell was that? Cottage cheese is milk-curd, but I didn't fancy soaking lamb in it. And the same stuff was used for vegetable dishes, condiments, and sweets -- puzzling.

See, in 1960, there was no such thing as yoghurt in the US. That changed with a big weight-loss promotion for a product called Dannon Yogurt. Dannon was nasty stuff, but its shrewd marketing plan spoke not at all to the complex of bacteria and fermentation that are healthy for you, but to the product as diet-friendly (made somewhat palatable by adding jam to the bottom of the container). Americans didn't like yoghurt anyway, and they expected to suffer to lose weight. Many women were forever changed in breakfast habits by this clever move that made a very ordinary product seem special. But in the pre-Foodie '60s Manhattan, plain yoghurt did not exist.

So I tried buttermilk marinades, sour cream marinades -- the one too thin, the other too thick. It was a decade before I discovered the virtues of a simple good yoghurt.

A typical curry, such as "Khorrma," called for meat first soaked in curd and salt, then cooked gently in a covered saucepan until the meat was tender and almost dry. Only then would a mix of onion, garlic, sweet pepper, coconut shreds, fresh herbs and spices be sautéed in butterfat, the meat added and finished.

But yoghurt is far more versatile than just Indian food. Mixed with minced garlic, olive oil, mint and spices, it is culinary sorcery for grilled lamb, fish or shrimp; baked chicken thighs take on a mysteriously rich, crusty quality; on the barbecue, inexpensive cuts of beef become tender and lubricious.

As an element of salad dressing, it supplies both body and tang, combining felicitously with such disparate elements as tomato paste, frozen orange juice, honey, egg yolk, mayonnaise, dill or chives...the possibilities are endless.

Over a lifetime of using yoghurt as an ingredient, however, I've rarely liked it by itself. It sparkles as a condiment base; there are whole classes of Indian dishes that use it: raita, made with chopped fruits, herbs, or vegetables; bhurta, cooked vegetable curry; and lhassi, a refreshing beverage combining fruit juices and spices -- the original version of a "smoothie."

But recently we discovered Bellwether Sheep Milk Yogurt (from Petaluma), sold in 6-ounce cups at the North Coast Co-op. While sheep's milk makes wonderful cheese, the pure milk is too intense for me; yet this yoghurt is the best I've tasted, and it has become a staple in our refrigerator. (Just imagine! Yoghurt is like cheese, regional, with terroir. Yeah, that elitist-seeming word. But I find nothing elitist about understanding where your food comes from, or why some food tastes better.) Bellwether yoghurt shines in this quarter-century-old recipe from our Eureka restaurant:

Byrd House Cajun Broiled Chicken Thighs Two Ways

In a large bowl marinate 6-8 thighs (bone-in) in a container of Bellwether Plain Yogurt, plus the following:

fresh dill weed or fresh cilantro, chopped fine

mustard powder and wasabi or ground chili, cumin and bay leaf

granulated dry garlic and onion

fresh-ground black pepper and salt

any other dry, ground spice you like.*

Mix everything in a large bowl, add the thighs and coat thoroughly, using your hands. (Having hot water accessible is prudent.) Cover the bowl, and refrigerate for 1 to 8 hours.

Pre-heat a hot oven or broiler. When ready, place thighs on a cookie sheet skin down, and roast (or broil) for about 25 minutes. Turn, and cook another 25 minutes, testing with a fork for tenderness.

Perfect with rice. Do not discard the skins! They are the sauce. Cut them into strips of flavor to go with each morsel.

*(Paul Prudhomme routinely uses clove, allspice, ginger, fennel, oregano, basil, bay, paprika, thyme, cayenne, and white pepper.)

Email Joseph Byrd at byrdhouse.ltd@gmail. 

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Joseph Byrd

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Write Joseph Byrd at eat.your.spinach@gmail.com

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