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Indian Lassi Party: Cooling Down with Mango, Rose, Melon and Cucumber

Four luscious yoghurt lassis, plus armloads of sparkly bangles, will get the party started. Flavors include mango, cucumber with roasted fennel seed and Thai basil, cantaloupe and mint, and raspberry-rosewater.

Four luscious yoghurt lassis, plus armloads of sparkly bangles, will get the party started. Flavors include mango, cucumber with roasted fennel seed and Thai basil, cantaloupe and mint, and raspberry-rosewater.

Recipe for a muggy summer afternoon: A tub of tangy Indian yoghurt, sweet summer fruit, fresh mint and Thai basil from the garden, a few spices from the pantry. Ice, and a blender to mix it all up.

Add a stack of glittery bangles and party sandals. And what about that flowery embroidered kurta you bought in Mumbai and have never worn? Now’s your chance.

Oh yes, call up your girlfriends. The occasion?

A lassi party on the verandah, among the angel’s trumpets and the moon flowers.

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An ideal setting for a lassi party: Among the tropical plants, a brugmansia or angel’s trumpet unfurls eleven glorious blooms.

One steamy afternoon in Mumbai, on a block not far from Khotachiwadi, I saw three lassi vendors ladling milky-looking drinks out of rounded stainless steel jugs. Made of cold yoghurt mixed with water and ice, flavored with tropical fruits and juices, as well as roasted cumin or cardamom, mint or cilantro, or rosewater, these refreshing beverages, which originated in Punjab, drew crowds of thirsty Mumbaikars, eager to douse the torrid heat radiating from the sidewalk.

I succumbed to a mango lassi later that day, but the voluptuous Alfonsos, packed in straw at Crawford Market, were still green around the edges and the drink had a tinned flavor that was light years from the luscious beverage I had imagined.

Then last week, at Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking course, I finally had the lassi of my dreams. Cold and foamy, with the intense flavor of ripe mangoes and a hint of pungent cardamom, it was a perfect counterpoint to the spicy pani poori we were devouring. These fragile fried puffs, filled with cilantro, mint and chili-spiced potatoes, are dunked in a sweet and sour tamarind “broth” before the whole thing is popped into your mouth. After a dozen or so—no, you can’t eat just one—a cool creamy, fruit-flavored lassi is the ideal palate-soother.

“Mango is actually the second most popular lassi in India, “ Julie told me. The most popular? Surprisingly, it’s the sweet rose lassi, flavored either with syrup or rose essence. The third most popular is a salty lassi mixed with roasted cumin seed—and, in Sahni’s kitchen, with fresh mint leaves. (You’ll find recipes for both in her book, Classic Indian Cooking.)

In India the making of lassis is considered an art form. The drinks are usually bought from sidewalk vendors who specialize in the beverage. “A familiar sound in the streets of Delhi in the summer months is the rhythmic juggling of liquid and ice from one jug (loota) to another,” writes Sahni in Classic Indian Cooking. This juggling not only mixes the yoghurt and water, but creates a foamy, frothy drink, served either in glasses which are returned when finished, or in small disposable terracotta cups. Rarely are lassis made at home, and when they are, a very thin buttermilk stands in for the yoghurt.

The juggling may have a new twist, however. Wikipedia’s lassi entry reports that a Polish washing machine manufacturer traced its sales in India to a “lassi parlour” that was using several to mix up large quantities of the drink. The owner told the rep that he was “able to make ten times as much Lassi as I used to.”

I’m guessing you won’t want to try this at home.

But if there are no lassi wallahs where you live—and certainly there are none anywhere near me—you must learn to make them yourself. The secret is to use unflavored whole milk yoghurt, preferably Desi Natural Dahi, a thick and creamy, moderately tangy yoghurt which can be found in almost any Indian grocery—or a reasonable substitute such as Brown Cow Plain Cream Top Yogurt which has a criminally rich layer of cream on top which you can either save for another recipe or mix into the lassi for extra-unctuous butterfat-induced voluptuousness.

Earlier this afternoon I whipped up Julie’s mango lassi which, as I learned, is traditionally made with canned Alfonso mango pulp, preferably Ratna brand. “A fresh mango will never give you the right taste,” she told me, though you can also mix in chunks of very ripe mango in season. And although the pulp is quite sweet, you will probably wind up adding a tablespoon or two of sugar to balance the tartness of the yoghurt.

The mango lassi was so delicious that I went a little crazy. Using Julie’s basic formula—1 cup yoghurt, 1 cup cold water, 4 ice cubes—as a starter, I tried different combinations of fruit, spices and fresh herbs, frothing them in the blender, creating a continuous earsplitting roar which caused everyone to flee the kitchen—a little trick which I plan to repeat as needed.

After a lot of trial and error, I wound up with three more lassis, two sweet and one savory. The most delicious—and the prettiest by far—was an untraditional pink lassi made of fresh raspberry syrup and a splash of rose water. Raspberries and roses are one of those matches made in heaven, but all that flowery sweetness could become cloying—the tangy yoghurt keeps it in check.

I also tried making melon lassis. A very ripe, almost floral cantaloupe made a much better drink than a generic honeydew, especially thinned with milk instead of water. Still it took a handful of fresh mint leaves to bring this one to life, but the result was wondrously bright and refreshing.

For the last round, I combined chunks of icy cold cucumber with yogurt and water, then added salt and ground freshly roasted fennel seed. In Ayurveda fennel is considered a cooling spice, good for calming digestive fires and sweetening the stomach. Its aromatic licorice flavor added complexity to the mild cucumber-yoghurt blend, as did a few Thai basil leaves tossed in at the last minute.

Now you’re ready for the party.

Oh no, was that a rain drop? Well, let’s drink up before the deluge.
Julie Sahni’s Sweet Mango Lassi

(Recipe from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking Course)

Serves 3 (8-ounce servings)

Ingredients:
1 cup plain yoghurt
½ cup canned Alfonso mango puree (preferably Ratna brand)
2-1/2 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of freshly ground cardamom
1 cup cold water
½ cup ripe mango pulp (optional—use only when mangoes are in season)
4 ice cubes
Lime juice (optional)

Method:
1. Place the yoghurt, mango puree, sugar, cardamom and water in a blender and process until the sugar dissolves. Add the fresh mango, if you are using it, and ice cubes; process until the ice is crushed.
2. Pour into 3 tall glasses and serve. If desired , add a few drops lime juice, to balance flavor. Mix well and serve.

Sweet Raspberry-Rose Lassi

The raspberry syrup can be made the day before and refrigerated overnight.

Serves 3 (8 oz servings)

Ingredients for the raspberry syrup:
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup water
2 cups fresh raspberries

Method for the raspberry syrup:

1. In a small pot combine the sugar and water. Bring to a boil and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the burner and let the sugar syrup cool off
until warm, but not hot, to the touch. Stir in the raspberries and crush them with the back of spoon to release their juices. Let the raspberry mixture sit for 30 minutes until it has cooled to room temperature.
2. Put the raspberry mixture in the jar of a blender and process until the fruit is completely pureed.
3. Place a stainless steel strainer over a bowl. Pour the raspberry mixture through the strainer, pressing with the back of a spoon to force all the juices and pulp through the strainer, leaving the seeds behind. You should have 1 to 1-1/3 cup sweetened raspberry puree.

Ingredients for the lassi:
1 cup plain yoghurt
1 to 1-1/3 cups sweetened raspberry puree
3/4 cup cold water
1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste
4 ice cubes
¼ teaspoon rose water, or to taste
Organic, unsprayed rose petals for garnish, if desired

Method for the lassi:

1. In the jar of a blender, combine the yoghurt, 1 cup of raspberry puree, and water and process until frothy. Taste. Add the remaining raspberry puree if desired and 1 tablespoon sugar. Blend again. The tanginess of the yoghurt and the sweetness of the fruit should be evenly balanced.
2. Add the ice cubes and blend until crushed. Sprinkle in about 1/8 teaspoon rosewater and blend. Taste and sprinkle in the rest of the rosewater, if desired. Be careful with the rosewater—add too much, and you’ll feel that you’re drinking perfume.
3. Pour into tall glasses and serve. If you have organic, unsprayed rose petals, add one or two to each glass or toss a few on the tray around the glasses. (I used organic tuberose flowers to decorate the lassis.)

Sweet Cantaloupe-Mint Lassi

Serves 3 (6 ounce servings)

Ingredients for the lassi:
1 cup plain yoghurt
2 cups very ripe cantaloupe, cut into chunks
½ cup milk
1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste
4 ice cubes
30 fresh mint leaves, preferably peppermint or spearmint
3 sprigs of mint for garnish, if desired

Method for the lassi:
1. In the jar of a blender, combine the yoghurt, cantaloupe and milk. Blend until frothy. Taste. Add a tablespoon of sugar if desired and process until it has dissolved. The tanginess of the yoghurt and the sweetness of the melon should be evenly balanced.
2. Add the ice cubes and mint leaves. Blend until the ice is crushed and the mixture is frothy.
3. Pour into tall glasses and garnish with a sprig of mint if desired. Serve.

Savory Lassi with Cucumber, Roasted Fennel Seed and Thai Basil

Serves 3 (6-ounce servings)


Ingredients:

1 tablespoon fennel seed
1 cup plain yoghurt
½ cup cold water
1-1/2 cups cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
1 generous pinch salt
6 Thai or other basil leaves
3 sprigs basil for garnish, if desired

Method:

1. Roast the fennel seed: Heat a small cast iron skillet over a medium flame. When the skillet is hot, add the fennel seed and toast, stirring frequently, until it begins to change color, turning yellowish-brown, about 3 minutes. Do not let the fennel burn. Pour it into a spice grinder and let cool completely. Then grind to a powder, pour into a small jar, and set aside.
2. In the jar of a blender, combine the yoghurt, water and cucumber. Blend until smooth and frothy. Add ice, salt and ¼ teaspoon roasted fennel powder. Process until the ice is crushed . Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Add the Thai basil leaves and blend until frothy.
3. Pour into tall glasses and garnish with sprigs of basil, if desired. Serve.

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