Rethinking curd rice

Curd rice was once seen as healing food, acquired fame as a beloved summer special and conquered palates for its cure-all properties. Here’s how the famous Thayir Sadam and its ilk have become a relevant classic.
A humble dish like curd rice is often elevated with a garnish of pomegranate seeds. Image: shutterstock/lazhko svetlana.
A humble dish in its origins, curd rice is often elevated with a garnish of pomegranate seeds. Image: Shutterstock/Lazhko Svetlana.

It’s understandable why the mention of curd rice makes us think about Tamil Nadu’s Thayir Sadam. And the reason isn’t just the near-obsessive love for this ancient dish, which by ancient texts and accounts is as old as curd itself, but also its palatableness, the plain or lavish tempering notwithstanding, matched by its soothing aftereffect and lightness.

The virtues of curd rice have made this science-based curative dish a pan-India phenomenon, and by that we mean the erstwhile Bharat and beyond, with each version having its own distinct style.

Different takes

Take the Dhaka or Chottogram version of Panta Bhaat, for instance. While the basics are the same, says culinary consultant Sumanta Chakrabarti, “there is boiled rice which is cooled down, slightly mashed with water before fresh curd, and then the flavourings, are added. The quality of ingredients used to make this version makes it unique. Unlike West Bengal’s frugal Panta Bhaat, where fermented, local, parboiled rice is preferred, the Chottogram version uses the luxuriant Gobindbhog rice which is cooked with kalonji, and hand-crushed Gondhoraj lemon leaves. Once the rice is ready, the zest of the lemon is added. Once completely cooled, the curd rice is cooked by adding curd, chopped green chilli, sugar, coriander leaves, ghee, salt, and finished with the juice of fragrant lemon.”

Panta bhaat is a cousin of curd rice popular in bengal and bangladesh. Image: sumanta chakrabarti.
Panta Bhaat can be considered the cousin of curd rice, which is popular in Bengal and Bangladesh. Image: Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti.

Such was the popularity of this fragrant, invigorating curd rice version, “that back in the day, it would be standard fare offered both to guests and a homecoming special for traders and sailors, especially during the extended summer months that the region experiences,” he adds.

The Dhaka version is one of the many fine examples of how the Charak Samhita concept of a coolant, gut flora-boosting dish was adopted across food cultures.

Jammu & Kashmir’s Kasher Mayeer is a delicious deviation from the popular curd rice recipe. The celebratory dish, made during the birth of a calf, is more a savoury pudding and follows the cooking styes akin to Doodh Wangan (eggplant in curd). While the curd here is more of a buttermilk, it is added to the rice when it is almost cooked, and the mixture is cooked till it thickens. It is thickened with roasted cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, hing, and the mandatory mustard seeds, red chilli, curry leaves, and finished with a dash of oil. It is mostly served with either haaq or some kind of spinach dish for a balanced meal.

Sweet and savoury

Interestingly, the pudding-style take on curd rice isn’t just followed in Kashmir. The Assyrian Gurdthu, which is this ultra-velvety sweet rice porridge made with yoghurt, bay leaf, cinnamon and presented drizzled with honey and fresh figs, and the Rajasthani Oliya, which has sweet and savoury versions made during Holi and Sheetala Ashtami, respectively, seem to belong to the same school of thought, though different in the cooking process and the ingredients. While the Assyrian version leans on the erstwhile style of making pudding with egg as part of its preparation, the Rajputana Oliya is more pronounced in its use of dry fruits and pomegranate. The sweetened version sees the use of saffron, cardamom, cashew nut and khand (mishry in the past and sugar today), while the savoury one takes the inspiration for the tempering from the traditional variety with yellow mustard and roasted cumin. The common thread, of course, is the use of nuts, where the savoury Oliya boasts of being topped with cashew, almonds and raisins and a handful of finely chopped coriander leaves.

Curry leaf pepper prawns served with thayyir sadam or curd rice, and banana crisps at masala library.
Curry leaf pepper prawns served with Thayyir Sadam or curd rice, and banana crisps at Masala Library.

A distinctive take also defines the curd rice from Southern Bihar, where the basic curd rice recipe is tempered with red dry chilli, curry leaves, cholar/channa dal, peanuts and topped with carrot, fresh coriander leaves, curd, cucumber, green chilli, pomegranate, peanut and raisins, salt, sugar. The result, says Chef Chakrabarti, “is this brilliant jugalbandi of sweet-savouriness with enough texture for an engaging palate play and a far cry from the original curd rice iteration that was seasoned simply with salt and mustard oil, and paired with a medium-sized onion and later chilli.”

From a frugal meal to a celebratory dish

Fascinatingly, the use of fruits and nuts for texture isn’t the privy of the northern variety of curd rice. It is, according to Sharada Ghosh, Principal, IHM Bhubaneswar, “a standard way of elevating a frugal meal that had its genesis in a farmer’s kitchen. In Thayir Sadam, pomegranate is added to elevate the dish into a celebratory meal served in weddings and rituals, and in Karnataka’s Mosaranna, cashew nut in the tempering and topping with pomegranate and grapes is almost a standard practice.”

This is much like the Meetha Pakhala in Odisha that uses oranges to impart amazing taste and fragrance to this fermented rice-based version. Of course, it is a far cry from the traditional curd rice presented to Lord Jagannath called Chupada Pakhala. Here, she says, “the rice is freshly cooked and allowed to cool with water in traditional pots called kudwaa, before curd is added along with slivers of ginger and roasted cumin powder.”

The home version of this is more pronounced as green chillies and ginger are pounded into a coarse paste and added to the Dahi Pakhala while it is resting. Roasted cumin is added minutes before it is served giving it this nice, sweet fragrance.

In that manner, says seasoned Chef Amey Marathe, “it is very close to the curd rice or Dahi Bhaat that is made in Maharashtra, where along with the traditional tempering in peanut oil, there is addition of ginger-green chilli paste and a handful of finely chopped coriander leaves.”

Dahi pakhala in a contemporary plating. Image: alka jena.
Dahi Pakhala in a contemporary plating. Image: Alka Jena.

Made with short-grained Ambemohar or Kollam rice that cooks fast and can be mashed well, Chef Marathe says, “what gives the Dahi Bhaat its deliciousness is the addition of milk. The curd rice is paired with a bhaji, preferably a vegetable rich in prebiotics such as plantain.”

Goodness at work

Milk, which is added to acquire that velvety richness, especially while mashing the rice, does the trick, say the experts. “This is a better option to bloom the leftover rice rather than use oil or ghee later.”

Daddojanam, which is what the Andhra Pradesh of curd rice is known (it is also called Bagalabath), is part of temple cuisine. Made with ponni raw rice, the curd rice, says Ghosh, “is made while the rice is relatively warm to get that silk-like texture, with the tempering ranging from the one used in a standard Thayir Sadam, where the chilli is replaced with pepper for the temple version, to having a variety of combinations with spices, herbs and vegetables and even one where the ginger, cumin and green chilli are ground to a paste and then added to the curd rice. Though when it comes to curative properties, nothing works like the basic recipe with the tempering of mustard seeds, curry leaves, pepper, and urad dal with hing or ajwain added for better digestion.”

But what is the reason that curd rice gained so much popularity and continues to do so? One good reason could be the ease of preparing the dish. In its simplest form, the dish includes just rice, curd and salt. In its ritzies version, it has carrots, cucumber, raisins, grapes, pineapple and, in some cases, mangoes, too (a relatively recent addition).

The beauty of curd rice lies as much as its nutritive value as how simple it is to make the dish. It is the best source of probiotics, a characteristic that is further enhanced with the vatrious pairings, especially with pickles in the south and vegetable stir-fries and leafy greens elsewhere.

Curd rice is very easy to digest and puts no pressure on the liver. It leaves us with the feeling of fullness, and yet leaves us with distinct feeling of lightness. The tempering aids in ensuring that the stomach remains cool.  

No wonder curd rice is still grandma’s first choice of cure-all dish across India.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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