Lassi, an ancient wellness drink, has only grown in popularity over the centuries. What are the reasons for its universal appeal?
There are two things that make Indian summers enjoyable: One, mango (of course, there are watermelons, peaches, and jackfruits too, but none with this superstar status); and two, lassi, or as the colonial chef William Harold called it, “the original Hindustani smoothie.” Lassi as a drink matches the popularity and variety of mango, and is referred to in Vedic texts as Payasa or Madhuparka.
A concoction of curd and honey, the origin of lassi or Payasa — according to oral history — was in the region of Multan around the early BC. Multan back then was occupied by the early Aryans who were expert animal breeders, and among the few communities in the world who had a stomach for milk. And yet, milk wasn’t one of the prized possessions back then, owing to its short shelf life. Instead, the milk-rich community preferred curd, cheese and the fermented drinks created thereof for two reasons: the aged drinks tasted well, were easier to digest and kept them agile and active. Incidentally, these were the very reasons that fermented drinks were popular across the world, and a mainstay on the Silk Route much like the Turkish dhallë that many consider to be the closest kin to lassi, and kumis, the probiotic drink that is said to be the secret behind Chengis Khan’s undefeated army.
The rich history of fermented drinks
Such was the popularity of this curd-based drink, which eventually bloomed into a culinary banyan of variants thanks to its rich, velvety, sweet taste, that it was soon elevated to a must-have on all portal stations. For good reason too, says culinary evangelist Chef Sharad Dewan, Director, Gourmet Design Company, “apart from the cooling, balmy, slightly familiar taste that made lassi instantly loveable, it was also easily digestible, irrespective of the region that a person had come from, or travelling to.”
This was the major reason that most regions on the Silk Route, continues the culinary explorer, “produced a wide variety of fermented drinks that included pickled soft cheeses (Egyptian Mish) to probiotic-dense ferment tipplers like the Sudanese Biruni and Gariss that easily lasted from a few months to three years, and the all-popular rob made of goat’s or cow’s milk.”
In the Indian context, says culinary anthropologist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “that stature was given to Shyom and Somar, along with pancha-amrit. While the former is a kind of curd drink variant that is part of the Tibetan Shoton Festival, the latter is an ethnic ferment drink made from yak milk and a Sherpa’s tried and tested antidote to a tough-nut gut.”
The rise of lassi
“It was in its all-round healthfulness,” says Chef Gorai, “that lassi scored, being the bona fide Aryan drink of India that was further praised in Arthashastra by Chanakya who found the drink’s ability to instantly calm and cool one down a necessary virtue for a Chakravarti Samrat. In spite of being a ‘virgin’ compared to the plethora of aged, fermented tipplers of the time, lassi or Madhuparka had all the qualities of kumis, in a different combination, of course, with a rich taste to boot.”
That, along with its versatility as an ingredient that could take on any flavours (from the subtle bhaang to the deliciously sweet mango and malai), be tweaked to suit the palate of any place (the sweet Punjabi lassi takes on the avatar of a chaas in Gujarat and ghol in Bengal), and be easily fortified with herbs like mint, coconut and a variety of nuts and floral essences, gave it an edge that the slightly healthier rob didn’t possess.
“As a result,” says Chef Gorai, “with the evolution of the pastoral community, lassi became not just a popular summer drink but at the zenith of the Gupta reign had attained cult status, even having its own dedicated shop.”
The early jottings of Chii Mii Yao Shuu and Chanakya, where the latter professes of finding solace in the swig of the curd drink stands testimony to the instant popularity of the drink, which many chefs and historians believe led to a series of interesting beverages over the years, all cued to wellness.
The pehelwan connection
One of the earliest variants of lassi that gained equal popularity was the bhaang lassi. Though less potent than the pure bhaang drink, this variant of lassi became the perfect antidote to weather changes, and also had a zen-like effect on people. Lassi’s all-encompassing goodness was, in fact, one of the reasons that the drink that was once the preserve of the pastoral community or those on the Silk Route soon became a part of the food ledger, especially of the pehelwans (wrestlers).
“Lassi’s popularity across India,” says north frontier specialist Chef Balpreet Singh Chadha, Executive Chef, The Park Kolkata, “was as much due to the pastoral community as to traders and the popular sport of Mallayudha. Pehelwans often found lassi to be a good source of getting their share of nutrients, especially while travelling and in summers when eating large meals was not viable.”
The fact that lassi could be fortified with ease combined with the popularity of the royal martial sports, says Chef Chadha — who found similar styles of making lassi from the Dogra kingdom of Jammu to the tiny bylanes of Pondicherry — “played a significant role in not just turning lassi into a pan-Indian favourite but also giving it the wide variants that we see today, including the sherbet versions that one finds in Odisha and parts of Bengal where lassi has been transformed into not just this OTT drink but a meal in itself. Then there’s Karnataka’s Neer Majjige which is cued to the weather there.”
Little is known about when and how lassi got its different avatars, says Chef Gorai, “however, each version of this popular drink stands testimony to local flavours — like in Gujarat and Southern India lassi is a savoury drink unlike the original sweet Multani lassi — as well as the changing political topography that brought in the first few iterations of lassi like the khus lassi, rose lassi, kesari lassi and the uber-popular mango lassi, a globally known variant that is said to have originated in the kitchens of Prince Dara Sikhoh, an acclaimed horticulturist.”
But are lassi’s cooling properties, versatility, and our pastoral history the few reasons that have kept this 1000 BC drink in the limelight even today? To a large extent, says Chef Dewan, “among all the summer beverages that are today part of our culinary ledger, lassi enjoys not just ritualistic patronage but also that of the culinary world purely for its all-good nature. As the wellness drink it was intended to be, it is the best form of a probiotic drink with a good amount of calcium and other nutritives. As a coolant, it is known for instantly calming the stomach while aiding in digestion. As an ingredient, it is ridiculously revolutionary. Think about it, you can pick just about any ingredient known today or back then, herb, flower, essence, dry fruits, fruits, and it is a tasteful marriage. Even to the classic pairing, newer additions could be made without taking anything away in terms of its nutritive properties or the rich taste that catapulted it to the royal table as well.”
That, adds Chef Gorai, “and the simple technique of whisking that gives lassi its contrasting, cloud-like lightness and the rich taste makes it a sheer joy to experiment with.” A prove of this, in fact, were the many shops that in the summers adorned the major markets in different kingdoms including the lavish Chandni Chowk where lassi was a part of the summer carnival. Food lore credits Empress Nur Jahan with popularising a savoury version of lassi in the serais that offered it to the runners, especially during the month of Ramadan.
Lassi’s brilliance, says Chef Chadha, “is in its nature akin to kheer. And that has allowed it to transform into a beverage that is omnipresent albeit with a few quirks. This perhaps explains why post partition many immigrants decided to open a lassi stall instead. And a few of them went on to shape our love for the drink, and the way we love it.”