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Yogurt: milk & mayhem

Updated: Aug 17, 2019

By Nina Mukerjee Furstenau

FAYETTE, Missouri-- As Robin Sloan says in his delightful book, Sourdough, "I have come to believe that food is history of the deepest kind. Everything we eat tells a tale of ingenuity and creation, domination and injustice--and does so more vividly than any other artifact, any other medium."

I saw this in bacteria. It dawned on me as I glanced at a bowl of home made yogurt, where deceptively calm fermentation was going on, that I had actually seen Sloan's type of war of the worlds many years ago on the windowsill of my grandmother's house in India. All seemed quiet with the whole milk in her bowl, but underneath the creamy white surface that was slowly thickening in the Bihari heat, there was mayhem.

In the cultures of milk, as Andrea S. Wiley says in her book of the same name (meaning the dairying communities in the world), fermentation is a process that produces lactic acid found in such sour foods as pickled cucumbers, kimchi, and yogurt, as well as alcoholic wine and beer.

To make these foods we love, as Sloan explains in Sourdough, it's a bloodbath. Vast cultures rise and fall, armies of bacteria convert carbohydrates into acids in a what could be seen as a diabolical process: an organism converts (read eats) a carbohydrate, such as starch or a sugar, and transforms (read crushes) it into an alcohol or an acid.

Who knew metabolic process was so aggressive? In my kitchen, the cooling yogurt, which I greatly enjoy blended up with peaches in August, or maybe strawberries, or banana, seems so innocent.

I love the braided historical complexity of milk. Consider that it is one of two foods on the planet created just to be eaten. It could be debated if the other, honey, counts as bees do not make it within themselves but use plant pollen[i]. Everything else, flora or fauna, has to be killed before it is consumed. Perhaps this was one reason, milk is considered a “pure” food in India where its purity transports it to the realm of the sacred. If you consume milk or foods cooked with it, the sanctification rubs off.

If you think the culture of milk in the U.S. is vastly different in its story, think again of the biblical references to the land of “milk and honey,” the lasting idea of its wholesomeness, iconic children’s books with images of large and docile cows, the association with whiteness of milk and purity. It gets complicated, this connection between milk and purity. Even its physicality in India is fraught as much milk there in fact comes from water buffalo, whose status is anything but sacred, but whose milk is much richer in butterfat, and fetches a better return economically.[ii] While belief systems might seem curious at times, it is probably true that humans behave in ways that ultimately enhance, rather than diminish, our well-being.

And, sometimes those behaviors take on political, nation-building roles. Early cow protection laws in India, using the trope of the Hindu scared cow, served not only to generate more milk for citizenry ready to break free of colonizers and be better nourished, but showed resistance to both the British (and earlier Muslim) rulers and their predilection for beef,[iii] and who could only see the cow’s main purpose as a source for meat or milk, leaving out dung and its uses valued for millennia in India.

Food is resistance, we've seen it time and again. A daily dose of what's good for you, and good for cultural imagination, too.

Through Wiley, I learned India ranks among the cultures of milk that include northern Europe and its subsequent populations in North America (looking at you, Wisconsin), Australia, and New Zealand, and nomadic populations of central Asia and East and West Africa. Even so, across India only an average of 20 percent of people can digest milk after weaning age. In the U.S., the average is closer 75% (National Dairy Council, 2012) with the average of European Americans at 90%, and African American, Native American, and Asian American at merely 10 to 25 percent, using a small sample test (NIH Consensus Development Conference, 2010).[iv]

Esteem for fresh milk has not meant uncomplicated digestion.

It’s an unresolved mystery why this is. Humans are built to stop producing lactase at weaning. But across the world, after dairy animals were domesticated 8,000 years ago, the genetic mutation for lactase persistence that digests the milk sugar lactose throughout life grew.[v] But not in India.

I gaze at my slowly forming yogurt and consider that biology works both ways--we shift things around to make our environment more comfortable, changing the ecology to suit us at times, and our environment reciprocates.

Fresh cow milk

Fresh milk was mostly made into yogurt and ghee in India, and the process to make these removes almost all of the lactose from the end result, as well as increasing the life span of the milk. With yogurt, heating milk and letting it sit at warm temperatures encourages fermentation by bacteria such as Lactobacillus that converts lactose into lactic acid and yields the end result of yogurt. Depending on how long this process goes on, and the quantity of bacteria present (warriors all), most of the lactose will be removed. Butter made from the churning of these curds produces buttermilk to drink as a by-product, and in India, it is then heated and the remaining solids removed, forming ghee, also very low in lactase.

As I've mentioned in this blog before, the great sweet making state of Bengal creates its oft-eaten specialties mostly from chhana, a soft cheese made by adding acid such as lemon or vinegar to heated milk and causing the milk curds to separate from the liquid whey. Again, lactose is reduced in this process by conveniently dissolving in the liquid whey that is drained off.

With these tasty products, little fresh milk was drunk in India and the population never had to develop a biological tolerance for digesting lactose as adults. For descendants of other dairying communities in the U.S. and elsewhere, fresh milk was a significant source of dairy and more lactase was necessary to digest it. Presto, the human body adapted.

Despite differing digestive lineages, India and the United States produce and consume the most milk in the world, and though thousands of years apart in milk history, they share milk mythology. It’s mother love, it’s nurturing, its pure and protective and, in India, because of its status as a pure food, it supersedes many food codes that ground Hindu social interactions. Neat trick, that.

[i] Wiley, A.2014. Cultures of Milk: The Biology and Meaning of Dairy Products in the United States and India. Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press.

[ii] Ibid.,15.

[iii] Ibid.,161.

[iv] Ibid., 12.

[v] Ibid., 10.


India, with its ancient food-as-medicine focus, never neglected a food's affect on the body. Traditionally lassi was made with fresh home made yogurt, salt, and cooling spices such as a small amount of roasted ground cumin to enhance its digestive properties. Even so, I never underestimate the basic, sweeter recipe below as an excellent cooler for hot summer days.

Mango lassi

Basic Indian Lassi Yogurt Drink

1-3/4 cup plain yogurt

6 cubes of ice, crushed

1/2 cups chilled water

2 teaspoons white sugar

pinch salt

Mix all ingredients in a blender, or use a mixer or whisk for the best texture, and blend until frothy.

Options: add 1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder, or 1/2 teaspoon rose water, or a few strands of saffron to the basic mix.

Mango lassi: mix 1/2 cubed, ripe mango, 3 tablespoons sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder, 3/4 cup yogurt, 3/4 cup chilled water and blend until frothy. If you add ice cubes, reduce the water by 1/4 cup, or to the thickness you prefer.

Strawberry lassi: mix 1 cup strawberries, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 cup yogurt, 1/2 cup water and blend until frothy. If you add ice cubes, reduce the water by 1/4 cup, or to the thickness you prefer.

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Thanks Bhaskar! I think the forces behind the scenes are always intriguing, too.


Interesting article. Good way to look at milk consumption in India and USA

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