Dairy in India

When I think of Indian food, especially at home, the one thing I never really think of is dairy. Masala spices, vegetables, HEAT, Delhi belly and the subsequent ring burn, but I don’t think of dairy products really making an appearance. However, having been in India for a while, eaten the food, watched tv and travelled around a bit, I can confidently say I had no idea what I was thinking. Dairy in India seem to be near the most important food stuff behind chewing tobacco. A lot of the adverts on trains, on billboards or on TV are milk or dairy adverts. Most shops sell bags of milk and especially in Rajasthan the amount of Paneer in curries in mind boggling.

I had eaten paneer before but only really in a pinch and at home it’s a sort of rubbery white lump that you either politely swallow with a glug of water or skirt around as if it had been secretly placed in your food to give you a rare bum disease. However, in part of a country where a vast majority of the restaurants are vegetarian, paneer makes up a lot of the protein in meals. Lacking protein in meat, a few lumps of Paneer cheese really do hit the spot and make the meal much more substantial.  Unlike the rubbery lumps that should probably be used as weapons in food fights back home, the cheese here is much softer and has begun to melt in the richly spiced curry gravies. While I don’t think it’s going to win cheese taste of the year award (hopefully a real thing) I don’t think that’s the point of paneer. It would take such a strongly flavoured cheese to compete and stand up to the spices that it would ruin the dish having anything other than the mild paneer.  Instead it is more a texture, being similar in consistency to tofu and the dairy hit is a soothing relief to a curry that is hot enough to blow your head off. While it may not be to everyone’s liking, getting a nice piece of soft Paneer in a butter masala is delicious. When not added in chunks it is sometimes grated over the top, adding a much more subtle creaminess to the dish, which can help distinguish it from the other tomato based curries. The grated paneer looks very similar to the rather odd addition of grated coconut that seems to be so common in curry houses in the UK. This may actually be the Britain’s own addition to make our own curries look authentic without adding something we are a little unsure of or a bad 70s hangover. Also in a country where we eat meat in most meals the addition of paneer would be an unneeded texture and protein hit.

However, it is not just in curries, the love of dairy in India extends to delicious lassis, soothing curds with thalis and a never ending supply of ice cream men serving up the best copies of magnums and cornettos you are likely to find for 50p. Chai, tea, in India is super sweet and milky, almost too much so but is served in a cup the size of espresso and is a delicious dairy treat. I actually think we are missing out by not including dairy in more of our curries at home. I have come to judge a thali on the quality of its curd and whether it has a skin or not. Usually I would fling the curd from the bowl like an unwanted Frisbee, but here it is delicious. The even more sour taste and textural bite is worth sifting through your curd for like a much more sloppy prospector. Rosie had also commented how amazing lassis are and the great skin found on the ones in jaipur.

Dairy in India does make up a huge amount of most people’s diets in the UK, but perhaps we should look at it in terms of our other great love: Indian food. I think we are missing out on a whole wealth of paneer based food as well as yogurt curries, curd skin and heat quenching lassis.  

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