IMAGINE A FEAST. It could be a wedding feast, perhaps, thrown by a rajah to celebrate the marriage of one of his sons — some occasion for which no expense would be spared.
Imagine the dishes: each a jewellike concoction of precious ingredients marinated, spiced and sauced, passed from jeweled hand to jeweled hand. Then after the layered biryanis, stratified like the sides of cliffs with nuts and meat and vegetables, the saucy dishes with their encyclopedic spice masalas, fluffy naan and heady gulab jamun, the dishes are cleared, and in their place is delivered a simple platter of water-chilled metal cups filled with one final course. In contrast to the rest of the meal, with its riot of spices, smells and textures, this last is simplicity itself: a cup of fresh yogurt, thinned with water or milk and vigorously stirred, seasoned perhaps with a bit of salt.
This is a lassi, a traditional drink from the northern part of South Asia. The lassi is sometimes referred to as the original milkshake or the original smoothie, although it predates the blender by at least 3,000 years, and was, in the days before Vitamix, prepared by vigorously stirring the yogurt, water and any additional fruit or spices in a simple clay pot with a stick or long spoon.
Transcending class, lassi would be equally at home on the gilt-trimmed tables of the ruling class as in the humble clay kulhar cup dished out by the local lassi walla, or street lassi stand. The simplest lassi, a combination of yogurt, water and salt, is an uncomplicated — yet multifaceted — libation that is many opposing things at once: as much a food as it is a drink, as much a treat as it is medicine — a pure, clean palate-cleanser full of bacteria (the good kind) that both cools the body and stimulates the fire in the belly.
It is said (and there is no sacred text or dashcam footage to the contrary) that the first yogurt was invented about 5,000 years ago by herders (sometimes of sheep, sometimes of cows, sometimes of goats, depending on which version you hear) in the middle of the world, that great churning melting pot of humanity that comprises Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Steppe. These herders milked their animals and stored the milk in bladders made from their stomachs, and the enzymes present in the container led to the very first fermented dairy product.
I imagine that the first time this happened, it caused significant dismay — a whole pouch of precious milk wasted. But some intrepid soul drank it, anyway, out of desperation or bravery, and discovered that: a) They loved the funky, tangy taste immediately, or b) It grew on them after they realized it helped them digest whatever other possibly less-than-perfectly preserved foods they were eating.
A good idea doesn’t stay secret for long, and fermented yogurt became part of the diet of people from Scandinavia to the Steppe, anywhere that animals’ teats were mined for their precious mammal-nectar. But many practitioners of Ayurveda or other traditional Indian medicine aver that the churning process used to prepare lassi breaks down the glial proteins in the dairy, making it even easier to digest.
For lassi is also the original digestif, a postprandial probiotic drink that cools the body while firing up the digestive system. The first mention of lassi suggests the concept dates from at least 1000 B.C., and is therefore likely far older.
Today, you’ll find lassi on every Indian restaurant menu, tucked away with “drinks and desserts,” usually flavored with at least mango, though that is far from the only flavor. There are sweet and savory lassis, the sweet ones usually sweetened with fruit and/or honey and sometimes rosewater, the savory with masala spices such as cumin, black pepper or cilantro. Ayurvedic recipes add spices according to one’s dosha, or body type, designed to stoke the furnace in one’s bowels to maximum efficiency.
In areas where marijuana is legal or tolerated, you might also find bhang lassi, made with macerated marijuana leaves and buds, often consumed on the Hindu festival of Holi to encourage the loose-limbed enthusiasm the holiday demands.
Preparing a lassi the modern way is simplicity itself: Add 1 cup of yogurt to ½ cup of water or milk (any milk is fine) and a pinch of salt, and blend briefly until it’s a bit frothy and thinned. Top with a sprinkle of cardamom, if you’d like. To make a mango lassi, add honey to taste and 1 cup of chopped fresh mango (you can use frozen, but your texture will be more smoothie-like).
To me, it is entirely rational and civilized to end a heavy meal, especially on a hot day, by sipping a drink designed to cool you down and encourage your digestive system to get on with it.
And if you’d like to cap off your lavish celebration feast with a bhang lassi, don’t let me stop you — this is Washington state, after all.