From kadis to taak to ghola dahi and chha gosht, buttermilk’s place in the traditional kitchen has been both as a flavourant and a delicious drink that does more than just help pucker up the tastebuds. Here’s a look at one of the oldest sustainable food practices – and its benefits.
Nothing quite says happy summers like a glass of well-spiced, chilled buttermilk or taak as they would call it in Maharashtra. Peppered with the goodness of roasted cumin, rock salt and ginger, it is often just the cool drink one needs to make summers bearable and to excite the tastebuds for a lavish Konkani meal. Such is the brilliance of this slightly sour drink at aiding digestion of a feast that over the years, a glass of buttermilk or matta has become an integral part of the thali experience – irrespective of the cuisine.
But what really is buttermilk? Unlike the commercial buttermilk that is made from adding cultured bacteria to fresh milk, buttermilk traditionally is what the leftover whey after butter is removed from milk is called. In fact, it remained a by-product of the process of butter making and had the same nutritive properties of milk minus lactose, fat, and the extra calories. Thus, making buttermilk as old as ghee, which, in the Indian context, predates both the ancient civilisation of Harappa and Indus, where milk and its by-products were regularly used not only for consumption but also as a “stock” to flavour food, given the astringent nature of buttermilk that made it perfect for curries that needed a hint of sourness for taste. “Remember, these were times when the use of salt in food wasn’t as widespread as it is today,” says historian Dr Ashish Chopra, “and much of the tastemaking was left to the pairing of vegetables, legumes or meat.”
Fascinatingly, buttermilk had a similar influence not just in India but elsewhere in the world too where it was either had as a drink or was used to flavour the gruel until its properties as a tenderiser and a leavening agent were stumbled upon. Thus began the tradition of using buttermilk – which according to author and historian Anne Mendelson (of Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages), was a result of unavailability of refrigeration – for marinating meat and even to make the batter of bread. “Back then,” says Anne, “buttermilk was made of milk that was going sour and thus had this added sourness thanks to the bacterial growth that gave it enough acidity to not only break down the protein in meat but also give the lightness to batter.”
Consequently, by the time Arm & Hammer label introduced sodium bicarbonate as baking soda in 1846, buttermilk had already become a standard leavening agent that was widely used in baking, making of chicken dishes and was a tenderiser for a wide variety of produces including meat. By the time refrigerators were introduced, buttermilk had not only established itself as a drink, a tastemaker and a leavening agent, but also came in two distinct categories: the sour one that was made with old milk and the sweet one that was made from fresh milk, each with its own usage. In India, however, the role of buttermilk remained limited as it was used either as a cooling drink that ranged from a simple masala chhaas to a decadent beverage seasoned with spices, herbs, and a dash of curd to give the watery whey body and rich mouthfeel. Then there was kadi – which was this velvety curry that used gram flour for its body.
“What differed,” says Chef Yogender Pal (Executive Chef, Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty), “was the way the kadi was spiced and complemented. In northern India, the use of fritters is commonplace while in the east and south, there is the fascinating use of vegetables such as okra and eggplant in the making of kadi. One exception to this is the use of buttermilk and curd in Himachal Pradesh and nearby regions, especially during winters, where it is used to cook meat that has been stowed for winters in dishes such as the chha gosht.”
“A medieval era dish, chha gosht,” says Mohan Gyani, who learned of it during his stint as the Executive Chef at Oberoi Wildflower Hall, Shimla, “gets most of its flavours from the use of buttermilk, which was the only thing available in abundance during the winters, and was in sync with Paharis’ love for khatta khana.” The buttermilk, which was made both of cow and goat’s milk was such a fascinating tastemaker that chha (buttermilk) soon became the yakhni of most of Himachal Pradesh’s dishes, especially those that were made in the hilly areas, and this included the channa madra that many believe was inspired by the rajma dish served in the royal courts of Kashmir.
“The beauty,” says Chef Pradeep Tejwani (Chepreneur, Young Turks), “of traditional buttermilk is that it has this amazing blend of sourness that can crank up the taste quotient of any dish where khatas is one of the prime flavours. Such as rasam made from drumstick and even sambar where you need that extra puckered up feeling. In fact, thanks to its mild acidic nature, it works wonderfully when it comes to tenderising meat, especially country chicken that yields better to a bath of buttermilk than just curd, which has become a standard practice these days. Of course, unlike curd, which is more concentrated in nature, it needs more time to develop and hence, is ideal for an overnight soak but the result is fantastic as it allows for better spice assimilation.”
This effectively explains why buttermilk is a preferred marination for fried chicken across the world. “Likewise,” says Chef Pal, “is the case when it is used in pancake batters as it gives that airy-ness to the batter than is needed to make them fluffy and light. In fact, the sour buttermilk often comes in handy to give rava batters that required boost to make those easy-on-the-palate dosas and chillas.”
Buttermilk’s ability to create delicious, leavened products is something that Chef Tejwani concurs with too, even though, he says, “Using this natural tenderiser and leavener warrants more time and patience.” One of his favourite usages of buttermilk – aside from the usual drink that he often likes to fortify with berries, beetroot and even kokum to give an appeal to chhaas – is its use in making congee and savoury porridges using oats and/or broken wheat. “Buttermilk tends to just lift the dish to another level by lending it that right amount of acidity and sourness that is needed for any upma-style breakfast dish to stand out.”
For food blogger Avinash Patnaik, however, the charm of buttermilk – apart from the delicious masala chhaas that comes in handy for those high humidity days when the tongue is searching for ways to pucker up – is as a rich stock that can be used in a variety of curries, especially those that are made with mustard paste called besara and needs that little hint of sourness to catapult the mustard’s sweeter profile. When it comes to Santula, a dash of buttermilk is all you need to enable the vegetables to sync (and sing) well. “Clearly, buttermilk,” rues the culinary expert, “a rarity today thanks to the age of packaged convenience, has more to its role as a fortifying flavourant than we have learnt of. After all, buttermilk is a good source of vitamins, calcium, protein and potassium, is low in calories and fat, and easily digested even by those who are lactose intolerant – and is versatile enough to take on different flavours, thus acing the ability of being fortified with nutrients that are not present in buttermilk.”
A fine example of this are the different styles of buttermilk made around the country, says consultant nutritionist Niti Desai, who endorses traditional style buttermilk (even when a spoon of curd is added for body and taste) as one of the few beverages that not only aid in rehydrating the body with water and minerals, but is also a potential booster dose of vitamin A, which is important to keep eyes healthy, a source of gut-friendly bacteria that we lose the moment we fall sick or suffer from an upset stomach and riboflavin that builds up the body’s energy levels while regulating amino acids. There’s also vitamin B that is vital for your body’s energy production systems.
In addition to the above, buttermilk is known to be heart friendly too, thanks to the bacteria that gives the whey-rich leftover its sourness, and also turns the lactose into lactic acid, thus making it safe for those who suffer from lactose intolerance. Buttermilk’s ace, according to Gut, a journal published by the British Medical Journal, is the certain bio molecules called polar lipids present in it that help reduce the build-up of cholesterol and other harmful blood lipids that results in conditions leading to a heart attack.
So, the next time you are looking for a gut-friendly flavourant that can make an interesting drink and cook a healthy dish, head for buttermilk … the traditional, mildly sour version.