Home >mint-lounge >features >Memories are made of buttermilk

My first memory of buttermilk is warmth and darkness. I must have been five or six years old. Still confused by the mists of sleep, I walked into my grandmother’s kitchen, drawn by a comforting swishing sound. My grandmother was sitting on the floor, her legs spread-eagled and resting on the wall. Soft light filtered through the window in front of her. In between her legs was a heavy earthen pot that was held firmly in place by a coiled towel. A tall wooden mathu or butter churner had been inserted inside this pot. Although I didn’t know it then, it was the older version of a blender.

I stumbled inside the cool kitchen. My grandmother turned. Her diamond nose ring glinted in the shaft of light. Her beautiful face crinkled into a smile but she didn’t say anything—she was engrossed in her task. Her hands held the two ends of a rope that was coiled around the butter churner. They moved back and forth rhythmically. My grandmother sat like a yogi, alert but relaxed. I had seen her in this position many times.

Unbidden, I slipped under her hands, level with her shoulder. I rested against the C-shaped curve of her body, my back against her soft, squishy belly; my legs spread-eagled like hers; my hands flush against hers. Together, we pulled the rope, back and forth, coaxing the milk into giving up its butter. It wasn’t milk really. It was the thick yogurt that she had been collecting for a couple of days.

The wooden churner was a marvel of engineering. It was held in place by two simple pulleys, facing opposite directions. The first was a U-shaped coil of rope that was tied permanently to the window grille. When we began the butter-churning process, we would slip the wooden churner in between this coil. Then would come the second coil of rope that we pulled from the other side. The churner couldn’t touch the bottom of the pot because that would generate friction when we churned. Instead, my grandmother would place it expertly so that the churner was a few inches above the bottom of the pot, held aloft by the pressure of her churning.

I loved sitting like this, matching my arms to hers as we pulled the rope together. I could smell the buttermilk and feel my grandmother’s breath on my nape. She never uttered a word but it was the closest I came to feeling utterly secure and comfortable.

Some minutes later, the heavy butter lumps would begin to form. My grandmother would pour cold water into the earthen pot. We would continue churning. Within minutes, butter lumps would float on top.

Then we would stop. My grandmother would collect all the lumps together in her hands and toss them together into a round ball. I would sit still and expectant, waiting for the best part. My grandmom would put the big round ball into a vessel filled with water. Then, she would collect the smaller lumps of butter that were still floating inside, make a small ball and glance at me. Obediently, I would open my mouth. In would go the freshly churned butter. It tasted of the saltiness of my grandmother’s hand, the sweetness of cow’s milk and the slight sourness of the yogurt that we had collected.

Fast-forward a decade and my grandmother still made buttermilk, except with her trusty Braun “mixie", which my uncle had gifted her from the US. It made her churning a lot easier. She would put thick yogurt into the blender, add ice water from the fridge, and press a switch. Five minutes of spirited whirring and the yogurt would foam on top.

The bubbles were my grandmom’s cue. She would add a little ice water and press the switch once again. Soon, lumps of butter would form. After that, it was the same ritual. She would collect the large lumps and toss them expertly with her palm into a large round ball. The dregs of butter would go into my mouth. They still tasted like buttery heaven.

Most parts of India use buttermilk. In Kerala, we simply water it down, toss in a few fresh curry leaves and drink it as sambaram. In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, buttermilk is spiced with ground green chillies, ginger, curry leaves, some asafoetida and salt, all of which are pounded and added to the buttermilk. We call this majjige or neer mor. Much of north India uses roasted cumin and mint leaves to spice their buttermilk or chaas, as it is called. A combination of roasted and ground cumin, some salt and pounded pudina, or mint leaves, are added to the buttermilk for flavour. This watery, delicious and light drink is excellent for digestion and cooling the body.

Punjab, of course, has its famous lassis, made with thick buttermilk blended with fruits. Mango lassi is available all over the world in Indian restaurants. Bengal, I think, doesn’t have buttermilk. They prefer their mishti doi, not the watered-down version. I don’t know about the North-East.

The beauty of buttermilk is its egalitarian nature. No matter how rich or poor, most people consume this drink. Down the road from where I live is a pushcart vendor. All she has on her cart is a red earthen pot filled with buttermilk that she sells to auto drivers, bicycle messengers, and anyone who needs a cool drink on a hot day.

As for me, I prefer buttermilk to yogurt, just as I prefer light black coffee to thick cappuccino. If I had a choice, I would drink my grandmother’s buttermilk, but she is no longer there.

I still have her wooden churner though. Every now and then, particularly on hot summer days, I think of bringing it out and setting it up with two coils of ropes, just as it was in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Shoba Narayan likes Amul Masti Dahi. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan.

Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns here.

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