The most refreshing drink on earth, or second best to a cold beer with a curry? Do you like them sweet or salty, spiced, fruity or plain, and what is the best type of yoghurt to use?This cooling yoghurt drink, popular throughout the Indian subcontinent, has a number of things to recommend it. First, it is utterly delicious, as anyone who has thrown caution and official advice about only drinking sealed bottles of water to the wind will testify – creamy and sweet-sour, sometimes salty, sometimes subtly spiced and never less than utterly refreshing. Second, it falls into that happy category of desserts masquerading as drinks, which means it is quite acceptable to put one away while you're waiting for your food to arrive, then demolish another one immediately afterwards, even as you wave away suggestions of pudding.
Lassi comes in two distinct varieties: sweet and salty (also known as chaas). The sweet version is often simply flavoured with sugar, which balances the natural sourness of the yoghurt, but can also be jazzed up with rose water, saffron or pureed fruit. As chef Cyrus Todiwala explains, “In summer, when the heat is intense, many Indians enjoy a good lassi instead of a meal.” The mango sort is one of my favourites, ripe mangoes being inextricably linked in my mind with India, but the recipe below is versatile enough to work with most fruits, or no fruit at all. This does not mean I endorse any sort of salted caramel or goji berry versions. Some things should remain sacred.
This is what makes or breaks your lassi, and there is a surprising amount of variation among recipes. Though it is always made with yoghurt, Monir Mohammed and Martin Gray's book Mother India at Home, based on recipes from the former's Glasgow restaurant, has one which is equal parts buttermilk and milk, with just a couple of spoonfuls of yoghurt. The India and Pakistan volume of Charmaine Solomon's Complete Asian Cookbook supplies a recipe that is mostly soda water.
By contrast, Meera Sodha's Made in India and Mr Todiwala's Bombay use yoghurt alone, with Sodha suggesting Greek yoghurt for those of us too lazy to make our own (ie me). Vivek Singh, Madhur Jaffrey and Anjali Pathak all thin their yoghurt with water, with the last claiming in her book Secrets from My Indian Family Kitchen that you can use low-fat yoghurt if you prefer, a suggestion which I treat with the scepticism it deserves. Though even the yoghurt-only versions are slightly diluted with ice, I find the Greek variety too thick to drink, while Pathak's almost equal parts yoghurt and water recipe proves too thin for my taste (and the combination of fizzy soda water and creamy yoghurt is just plain weird).
I like the consistency of the buttermilk and milk recipe and Todiwala's plain yoghurt and ice one, both of which are richly creamy, as a good lassi ought to be, yet just thin enough to slide down the throat in a pleasingly cooling fashion. The yoghurt version is slightly thicker and the flavour creamier, which swings it in the end, though Mother India's one is worth bearing in mind if you have buttermilk to use up – after making scones, for example.
According to Mr Chatwani of the Jay Kishan Lassi House in Nadiad, Gujarat, the creamier the yoghurt, the better: “After all, no self-respecting lassi-maker wants to be caught adding water and making it thinner!”. I'll be using a chilled whole-milk yoghurt, whizzed up with a little ice to cool it down and thin it to a drinkable consistency. If you'd prefer a plain sweet version, which won't benefit from the water in the fruit, add a little cold water or milk too, as Singh suggests in his sweet lassi recipe.
Purchases this week have confirmed my worst suspicions about the mangoes available in this country; as Sodha laments: “The season for alphonso mangoes is short, and our supermarkets prefer selling unripe Brazilian mangoes as they have longer seasons and are hardier.” Happily, the EU has lifted its ban on the super-sweet alphonso, which has just come into season, so if you can find it (and you'll need a good greengrocer, market or Indian specialist grocers), gorge yourself. Otherwise, you'll need to buy those big, thick-skinned varieties and ripen them at home until they're really sweet and squishy, or find a tin of mango pulp, as Jaffrey suggests. It doesn't have quite the same fresh acidity as the fruit itself, but it is really not a bad alternative (and tends to be much cheaper, too). Look for it in the Indian section of large supermarkets.
The sugar and flavourings
Not all the recipes I try add sugar and, of course, it depends on the flavour of the fruit you use. I prefer those, such as Mother India and Todiwala, that use quite a high proportion of fruit to dairy, which should mean there is no need to sweeten it any further, though do so to taste. Chatwani uses brown sugar, which I rather like. Todiwala says: “You may like to sharpen your lassi with a squeeze of lime juice.” I find the tang of the yoghurt I use quite sufficient, but if you don't share the famous Indian sweet tooth, bear this in mind.
I do, however, like the ground cardamom that Sodha and Jaffrey use as a flavouring – it goes wonderfully with the mango, and far better than Pathak's suggested alternative, cinnamon. Singh's rose water is nice in his plain lassi, and would work well with red fruits, but the predominant flavours here should be sweet mango and creamy dairy.
Green smoothies are so 2014: this is the summer of the lassi.
The perfect mango lassi
1 very ripe alphonso or honey mango, or about 200g very ripe supermarket mango or mango pulp
5 ice cubes
125ml chilled plain whole milk yoghurt
Pinch of ground cardamom, or to taste
Splash of milk or water (optional)
½ tsp soft light brown sugar (optional)
Squeeze of lime juice (optional)
To peel the mango, cut away the fatter sides from the stone, then cut cross-hatches in the flesh, turn inside out so the cubes stick out, and scoop into a blender with a sharp teaspoon. Cut the remaining flesh from the stone.
Add the ice cubes and whiz until finely chopped, then spoon in the yoghurt and cardamom and whiz until smooth. If it is still too thick (this will depend on the consistency of your yoghurt and juiciness of your mango), add a little milk or water to thin it down. Taste and add sugar as required, or lime juice if you fancy it. Pour into a glass and savour.
Lassi: the most refreshing drink on earth, or second best to a cold beer with a curry? Do you like them sweet or salty, spiced, fruity or plain, and what is the best type of yoghurt to use for an authentic-tasting result?