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Raita deserves to be celebrated

Raita is the silent guest at nearly every meal in North India.

Silent because it never gets the credit it deserves. We enjoy it but we don’t talk too much about it. In fact, as I discovered while researching this piece, nobody is even sure who invented it or where it came from.


This much we do know: raita is a North Indian thing. You don’t really find it in the East. You don’t even find it all over the West. And it does not exist in the South.


   Take my own example. When I grew up, there was hardly ever anything resembling a raita on the dining table. There may have been some kind of raita, usually boondi raita, at parties or big dinners. (Why boondi? Well, because Gujaratis like anything fried.) But on an everyday basis, the staples on our table were papad, pickle and chutneys and sometimes, plain dahi. Raita never showed up.


   Contrast that with now. Because I am married to a Punjabi, there is nearly always some kind of raita at dinner (though never boondi raita, sadly) and no meal seems complete without it.


   When I lived in Kolkata, I never saw any raita on the dining table at the homes of Bengali friends and indeed there is no Bong raita tradition. Nor is there a South Indian raita tradition. South Indians eat more curd/yoghurt than the rest of us. But they like it for itself.


   The nearest you get to raita in the South is pachdi, which may be of Tamil origin. (In Andhra and Telangana, pachdi is often just a chutney without dahi.) But a pachdi is not a raita. The key to a successful pachdi is to hand squeeze the onions so that the juices mix with the dahi (not a common raita technique, certainly).


   And even in the South, says Chef Praveen Anand, who founded and still heads the Dakshin restaurants for ITC, his research has shown that pachdi is most commonly served with pulao or biryani and more recently with parottha.  It is not an everyday staple.


   But in nearly every part of North India, I have come across raita and its many different variations, some of them amazingly creative, going beyond the aloo and kheera standards. Local leaves turn up in different forms and some regional specialities can take your breath away. The chef Kunal Kapoor, who has studied the cuisine of UP, is fascinated by some UP variations that involve smoking the dahi with roast gobar. (It tastes delicious, he says.)


"But it is interesting that all versions of raita are only found as you go West from North India, not if you go South or East."

   Kunal knows more about Awadhi food than anyone else I know so I asked him if raita played a prominent role in Lucknowi cuisine. He thought about it before conceding that while dahi turns up in Awadhi cuisine he could not think off-hand of any historical raita recipes.


   I looked then for great Mughal raita recipes. But there is no mention of raita in Salma Yusuf Husain’s The Mughal Feast which is based on recipes from Shah Jahan’s Kitchen. I know that there are raitas in Hyderabadi cuisine (as distinct from Telangana) but even there nobody seems to have any idea of how or when they were invented or if they were imported from elsewhere.


   When in doubt, I always turn to the work of the late K T Achaya who was India’s leading food historian. There was a reassuring predictability to much of Achaya’s research because he usually managed to find an ancient South Indian origin to most dishes. Alas, on this occasion even Achaya was not able to find any reference to raita in Sangam Literature. “ Rayatha is referred to in the Manasollasa of the 12th Century” he wrote. And he found later references in Karnataka Literature from 1458. If there were any North Indian references — which must seem likely — he did not bother to find them.


   Achaya also said that the kachumber of Gujarat was a similar “curd product”. But while there probably is a version of kachumber made with dahi, for most Gujaratis, it just means tomatoes, onions, cucumber and the like cut into dices with lemon juice squeezed on them. Nor is it a particularly ancient dish. The name kachumber is a corruption of the word cucumber so I doubt if we can trace it back to the Vedic period.


   There is one other possibility. Could raita have come to us from the Middle East? Just as there is a tradition of dahi being a cooling food in India, they treat yoghurt and cucumber as cooling foods in the Arab world too. I asked Anissa Helou, possibly the greatest expert alive on the food of that region, if she had come across anything that reminded her of our raita during her travels through the Middle East.


   Anissa responded that she had indeed seen cold yoghurt and vegetables dishes in the Middle East. “In the Levant, there is yoghurt with cucumber,” she said. “With dill in Turkey and mint in Syria and Lebanon. In Iran they also make it with elephant-garlic. I think it is called mast-o-musir”.


   She added: “Sometimes the cucumber is grated. At other times it is sliced. And in Iran they also make it with walnuts or beetroot.”


   That a version of raita exists across countries does not necessarily tell us when it came from. Perhaps the idea was Indian and spread to West Asia. But it is interesting that all versions of raita are only found as you go West from North India, not if you go South or East.


   There is one other obvious parallel. Raita is a lot like the Greek tzatziki. Heston Blumenthal touches on this in his new, authoritative book, ‘Is This A Cookbook?” (ans: yes it is indeed a cookbook though it is more than that). He asks “what’s the difference between a raita and tzatziki?” He responds: “very little. One is from India, the other from Greece but both are, in essence, a combination of cucumber, yoghurt and fragrant herbs.”


   Blumenthal is not impressed by the distinctions people make between the two dishes. “Some say tzatziki uses thicker yoghurt. Some say raita favours coriander while tzatziki typically uses mint, dill or parsley. Do such distinctions matter? Not really”.


   Heston goes on to give a recipe for what he calls Raitziki, which combines the two dishes, but seems to me to differ from a raita mainly in that it uses hung yoghurt.


   What all of this suggests to me is that the idea behind raita is an international one. It seems reasonable to believe that thedish grew out of a cross-fertilisation of cultures and cuisines. Our raita may be distinctively Indian but it is also a dish consumed all over the world.


   The only difference is that in the rest of the world people talk about their version of the dish. In India alas, all too often we take raita for granted. Which is sad. Because our raita deserves to be celebrated.




  • Rosie Wilson 11 Mar 2024

    'Is This A Cookbook?' sheds light on how connections game culinary traditions can share common elements despite originating from different regions. It's fascinating to see how food can bridge cultural boundaries and showcase the universal appeal of certain flavor profiles.

  • Emma 15 Apr 2023

    Raita is often served as a side dish to accompany other main courses, such as Biryani (a famous Indian rosemary rice dish), or grilled dishes such as Kebabs contexto and Tandoori (traditional Indian grilled dishes). Raita helps to soften the spiciness of hot dishes and provides a fresh, delicious taste that adds to the appeal of the meal.

  • Samiran Nath 04 Mar 2023

    Nice to read the wonderful article on Raita where you tried to find its origin. Rightly it is observed Raita’s connection is more pronounced in north India. But it is observed in most of the places irrespective of any corner Raita is commonly served as a side dish along with Biryani. At times it is also heard Raita is an extension of Namkeen Lassi often used to take by rural masses during summer along with their mid day afternoon meals. Regards:: Samir??n

Posted On: 03 Mar 2023 11:00 AM
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