In late December, I went out of town for two weeks. Before leaving, I emptied out my fridge. I fed the curd to the two stray dogs outside my house. It would only strike me later that in doing so, I had thrown away my starter culture, which was maybe a year or more old.

Let me illustrate the importance of curd by giving an example. I am told that according to old Kashmiri Pandit tradition, when a girl visited her parents’ home for the first time after marriage, she would return with gifts of curd, local bread, salt and nabad (crystallized sugar), symbolizing the essential ingredients of life—and considered auspicious. That curd was not simply bought from a shop: The bride’s family would give their starter culture to the local milkman, who would use it to set the curd in earthen vessels.

At the in-laws’ house, the curd would be distributed among friends and family. A bit of the curd would be mixed with their own curd to form a new starter culture, signifying the coming together of two families. In a way, starter curd is like sourdough culture, which, in some families, is treated like an heirloom, and can be several decades old.

Also, because girls then were married very young, when someone got pregnant, it was the mother who would deliver the news to the in-laws, carrying the same gifts of curd, bread, salt and nabad, among other things. In fact, curd makes an appearance on most festive occasions.

The Kashmiri word for curd is zamutdodh—zamut meaning to be born, while dodh is milk. The Kashmiri word for starter culture is zaag. Zaag also means awakening. It is as if the lactobacillus bacteria, which ferments the milk, brings it to life by breaking down the sugars and turning lactose into lactic acid.

One might say, “How difficult can it be to set curd?" It’s easy if you have the right starter culture, the temperature is right for the bacteria to multiply and the milk is left undisturbed for 3-4 hours. If not, you will be turning out bowl after bowl of unset/half-set curd, which will collapse like a soufflé as soon as you stick a spoon into it.

I faced this situation when I returned home after my holiday. It was January, the weather was far from ideal in Delhi for curd making. In the good old days in Kashmir, a time before microwaves and rice cookers, most families had a contraption for setting curd (and also to keep the rice warm). A wicker basket would be layered with old, discarded woollen blankets. The rice or milk bowl would be cradled in this. More old blankets would go on the top, creating a casserole-type of environment. Here, in Delhi, I use a woollen blanket, some double bed covers, whatever is handy, reducing the layers as the mercury starts soaring.

Curd is a vital ingredient in Kashmiri Pandit cuisine, it forms the base of most dishes, be it roganjosh, dumaloo, gourd or paneer. It’s not roganjosh you are having if it has onions, tomatoes and garlic in it. I also substitute curd for tomatoes in my cooking. For me, it simplifies things by doing away with chopping and slicing. Curd also goes into my jar of overnight oats. I end my lunch with curd, to which I add beet or mango, depending on what is available. A few sprigs of mint add to the cool quotient. Recently, I have discovered the joy of adding kurumilagu (green peppercorn) pickle to my curd after a friend gifted a bottle. The peppercorns explode in your mouth, the curd taming the heat.

To get started on my curd making, I bought a packet of curd from Mother Dairy and stirred in a spoon into warm milk and buried the bowl under a mountain of warm clothes. Even after a whole day, it had not set. My first attempt failed, so did the second, third and fourth. We were well into February now. One time it was semi-set, sparking hope that maybe the next attempt might succeed. Once I chucked in a couple of whole dried red chillies with the tails intact—the lactobacilli in the chillies is said to aid the process of fermentation. No luck. I decided to change the starter by buying curd from a local sweet shop. Nothing. Only the two stray dogs were happy.

I realized I need a robust, unadulterated home-made starter. It was time to turn to the neighbour. Home-made curd varies in texture and taste from one family to another, depending on the bacterial strength of the culture, unlike the standardized versions available in shops.

The neighbour’s cook said: “Give me your milk, I will set it for you. I make such good dahi that if you turn the bowl upside down, it will not fall." It seemed like I was being admonished for failing my home science test repeatedly.

Not one to give up, I started afresh. It was March, the weather was looking up and the neighbour’s starter culture looked promising. With great trepidation, when I uncovered the bowl after three-and-a-half hours, there was a sense of relief, joy and victory. The milk had set, it was firm and perspiring.

I was back on curd-making track, right in time for summer. Next time I go away for more than a week, my leftover curd is going into the freezer. You have to keep your culture alive.

KASHMIR: A CURD STORY

DOON CHETIN (walnut chutney): In a mortar and pestle, coarsely grind walnuts and green chillies (a handful of walnuts for a cup of curd). Add this mixture to thick curd and mix together. You can add fresh or dried mint. Serve chilled after adding salt to taste.

MUEJ CHETIN (radish chutney): Grate a radish; squeeze out the water. Mix it with thick curd (one small radish to a cup of curd). Add chopped green chillies. Sprinkle with a bit of red chilli powder and shahi jeera (black cumin, after crushing it in your palms). Serve chilled after adding salt. Traditionally, a piece of charcoal would be put on top of the chutney—it is said to absorb the pungent smell of the radish and reduce burping.

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