About two weeks ago, Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia announced that tea would soon be declared India’s national drink. His statement didn’t go down well with everyone. In only a matter of hours, distraught Punjabi farmers, businessmen, dhaba owners, school teachers, nutritionists and mummies gathered in large groups to protest this grave injustice to the drink that they thought was more worthy of the title. “Lassi symbolises our culture,” a news report quoted a Mohali resident saying. “And the name in itself is so Indian that it deserves to be named the national drink.”
Sure, more people drank chai but as Chandigarh residents pointed out in the news report, chai “was addictive, caused gastritis and was generally unhealthy”. We’re not sure about lassi being the national drink but there’s no doubt that it’s the drink of the season. In fact, all the debating and arguing got us so hot and bothered that we set off to find the best buttermilk in the city.
Lassi come home
We began at Punjab Sindh Dairy. PSD, as Khar mummies call the place, is known for paneer so soft and fresh, it is most often eaten raw with just a sprinkle of chaat masala. As May comes along, however, the dairy eases its supply of paneer, white butter, ghee and mawa and focuses instead on making as many plastic glasses of lassi as possible. Punjab Sindh’s yoghurt blast is miles ahead of any other packaged lassi brand available on supermarket shelves. The thick, rich (there’s a layer of cream sticking to the aluminium foil-cover when you peel it back) and sweet-but-not-sickening drink is only outshone by PSD’s mango-flavoured lassi – an even thicker, luscious creation that uses the fruit’s pulp, not sugar, as the sweetener. On most days, the mango lassi sells out by noon so get to your nearest outlet early to stock up. Only a few minutes away from the Khar outlet is Punjab Sweet House, another Bandra institution that many wager have the best samosas, cholebhatura and ragda-pattice in the city. Snack on any one of these feisty favourites and you’ll soon be begging for a lassi. It’s thick enough to render a straw useless. Served in a steel glass with a slab of fresh cream, Punjab Sweet House’s lassi is not too sweet but so heavy you’ll be as inert as a beached whale for fifteen minutes after. Kailash Parbat in Colaba also serves a commendably inertia-inducing concoction.
Not all lassi is like a meal. At places like Prakash, Panshikar, Mama Kane and Mahesh Lassi Centre in Dadar, the lassi is lighter, frothier and served brain-freeze cold. It’s of a consistency that’s thinner than Punjabi lassi but still far thicker than chaas – the perfect quickie cooler for those on the go. Most middle-class Maharashtrian establishments like these also serve piyush, which is like lassi but made from shrikhand. The best piyush, therefore, comes from the best shrikhand. Piyush must be pale yellow, sweet and thick, possessing just a hint of sour and the heady aroma of cardamom, nutmeg and saffron. Too sweet and it becomes cloying and unpleasant. Too sour and it’s lassi gone wrong. Our favourites are Panshikar and Prakash.
Both places serve excellent food and the piyush is no exception. Panshikar is best for a thirstquenching quickie because it’s thin, less sugary and keeps the nutmeg in control. Prakash, however, serves a thicker, spicier version that’s just what the doctor ordered after their spicy missal and pea patties.
Lassi is available at every strategic corner – at small stores outside railway stations, in large aluminium handis on railway platforms and stuffed into crowded mini-fridges at baniya stores as a healthier option to a bottle of Coke. But the best place to go looking for good lassi is a dairy farm. Places like Parsi Dairy Farm and Vijay Dairy Farm near Grant Road Station’s bhaji galli generate substantial business from sweet and salted lassi. Vijay even has a special menu that boasts of kesar, dry fruit, gulkhand, thandai, rose, mango and strawberry lassi. You can tell the drink is made from fresh curd – it doesn’t hit the back of your throat like sour dahi does – and the lassi is packed with enough sugar to keep you on your toes for a few hours. Then there’s Aarey. Available in nearly every neighbourhood, Aarey sells plastic glasses, packets and glass bottles of sweet and mango lassi that are cheap, reliably good and just what you want to glug down after a tiring day in the sun. And if you’re missing a sweet tooth, there are savoury options as well.
Cut to the chaas
Unlike lassi, chaas doesn’t muddle with flavours of your food so long as it’s Indian. A tall copper glass of chaas with plenty of coriander is a great accompaniment to kebabs at Pritam Da Dhaba and Papa Pancho. At Soam and Swati Snacks, traditional Gujarati chaas – spiced with only jeeralu powder – is just what you need to turn a light snack of pankhichutney into a full meal. Thali joints also take great pride in their chaas. Golden Star, for instance, serves a smoked chaas with a delicious aftertaste that demands slow sipping, as opposed to large swigs while Bhagat Tarachand (outlets in Girgaum, Sanpada and Zaveri Bazaar) serves chilled chaas in old beer bottles. Supermarket chaas isn’t too bad either but we recommend you stick to Amul: it’s lighter than Danone's, has a better flavour and costs less.
Mor is the South Indian version of chaas made in Keralite, Tamilian and Kannadiga homes. Traditionally mor or sambharam is made from the liquid that comes when churning white butter but most places (and homes) make mor by churning a little curd with plenty of water spiced with minced ginger and green chillies. You can get glasses or large packets of mor at Dakshinayan, Komala’s, Banana Leaf and pretty much any South Indian café in Matunga.
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By Neha Sumitran on May 11 2012 4.30am
Photos by Hashim Badani, Janak Shah