Nobody who visited my grandmother would ever think of drinking anything other than her famous buttermilk. Which flowed literally like water and was always on tap no matter what time of the day it was. My grandmother’s kitchen was one of wood fires and clay cooking pots. No gas stove, no fridge. So, every day, she’d put a pot of milk to slowly simmer through the day on one of those fires. And in the evening, when the milk was beautifully reduced and thickened and infused with the most wonderful aroma of the wood smoke, she’d cool it and set it to become curd. The next morning, the curd would be whipped to give up all its glistening, fat globs of butter. And what was left became a never-emptying lake of thick, faintly smoky, cool buttermilk, just tart enough to perk you up and flavoured with nothing but its own deliciousness. Buttermilk that soothed and cooled and refreshed every part of you, like nothing else could have. That remained cool and placid in its pot, without refrigeration, no matter how hot a day it was or how late in it you quaffed it.
So, my love affair with buttermilk began very long ago and we are childhood sweethearts really, inextricably linked with my happiest memories – summer holidays in my grandmother’s house. And since this is also one of the most healthful ways to make your summer a holiday, let me play you today my buttermilk rhapsody…
Let’s get this out of the way first. True buttermilk is not curd or yogurt churned or whipped with water. Buttermilk is…let me give you no other than the wise sage of Ayurveda, Sushrutha himself on this. Who has said that it is a concoction made of curd and water, churned so that the cream and butter is completely skimmed off. Leaving behind the ambrosia that is “Takara” or "Takaoka" in Sanskrit, "chase" or "math" in Hindi, "moor" in Tamale and "majjige" in Kannada and which has been eulogized as “what ambrosia is to the gods, buttermilk is to human beings”. And so, naturally, in Ayurveda, buttermilk’s astringent, light, cooling and appetizing nature makes it somewhat of a star as both a healer and a food. And its most impressive arena of action is the digestive system, where it is used in a myriad of different ways. Firstly, many Ayurvedic medicines, even some not meant for digestive ailments, are administered with or in buttermilk. Secondly, by itself, buttermilk’s most well known use is in the treatment diarrhoea and dysentery, where Ayurveda believes that it “quenches the fire of diarrhoea”. So much so that even current day pediatricians recommend buttermilk as an excellent means of oral rehydration in children’s diarrhea. It is also used in the treatment of colitis, piles, jaundice, nausea and other liver dysfunction, especially sluggish digestions.
Buttermilk is also used to treat skin disorders like psoriasis and eczema. Buttermilk is the main ingredient in two famous Ayurvedic treatments, both of which are named after it. Takradhara – where medicated buttermilk is released in a stream or dhara over the patient’s forehead to calm and treat conditions like insomnia, depression and other stress related problems. And Takrarishta – a classic Ayurvedic formulation used not only to treat diarrhoea and dysentery but even obesity.
Aaj ka buttermilk – probiotic extraordinaire!
But Ayurveda apart, buttermilk is wonderfully nutritive even from the modern nutritionist point of view. Like curd, it’s one of the best sources of calcium, potassium and phosphorus. Like curd, it’s swimming in the vitamins B12 and riboflavin. But most of all, like curd, it is one of the best probiotic foods. Just to refresh our memories, probiotic foods are foods that are residential quarters for good, friendly bacteria - foods like idli, dosa, appams, pickles, curds, paneer and of course – buttermilk!
Now we call these bacteria “friendly” for many reasons. Firstly because they are kinda fussy about the company they keep. On the one hand, they protect the body’s own colonies of good intestinal bacteria that aid digestion and without which we become susceptible to ailments like diarraheoa. On the other hand, they secrete substances that kill bad, disease-causing microbes. A study published in 2004 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested that Helicobater pylori, the bacterium responsible for most ulcers, can be shut down by yogurt. Naturally, if yogurt can do this, can buttermilk be far behind?
Secondly, the bacteria in probiotic foods are great digestive aids, crumbling down difficult-to-digest complex carbohydrates and proteins in cereals to the more easily digestible sugars and amino acids, making buttermilk a great digestive. Lastly, the probiotic bacteria heighten the nutritional value of the food by boosting the levels of vitamins in it - especially the critical vitamin B family - and by releasing locked up micronutrients like minerals into more soluble forms.
And with all these impeccable healthy food credentials, buttermilk has one other big bonus point. Since it has all the butter skimmed out of it, it is also oh-so-low on calories. So – picker-upper, tonic, digestive, infection fighter, nutrition booster, weight watcher. And yummy to boot. Could you ask for anything more?
Buttermilk, like curd, is great for your skin. Rinsing your face daily with plain buttermilk is a wonderful skin care regimen because it contains lactic acid, which is one of the most popular ingredients in skin care products. For many reasons. Firstly, lactic acid acts as a mild exfoliant, removing dead-skin buildup and making your complexion glow. Secondly, its acidic, astringent nature both lightens and tightens the skin which is why buttermilk is also a popular traditional remedy to lighten freckles, age spots and to treat sunburn. By the way, a good way to lighten suntan is to dip and cover your face, neck, arms etc., with a piece of muslin dipped in slightly sour buttermilk. Wait for about 15 minutes, then wash thoroughly with water.
You’re thinking – I suppose this is the part where she’s going to say that Cleopatra bathed in buttermilk, Well, some say she did and so also did Marie Antoinette – to keep away wrinkles!
It’s only natural that one so delicious and healthful will be blessed by the gods. So, the buttermilk gets the nod as good, healthy food by many religions. The Chinese traveller I Ching who travelled extensively in India during the 7th century and visited Buddhists monasteries, noted that in the meals served there, all prepared according to the strict food habits of the Buddhists monks, buttermilk was a favoured beverage. Along with dates, honey, figs, olives and milk, the Koran recommends buttermilk, especially during the fasting month of Ramzan. (Perhaps the reason for this is buttermilk’s nurturing and soothing action on the digestive system, stretched at this time due to fasting!) Buttermilk is also often served at the Sikh gurudwaras and to mark the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev, stalls of sweetened buttermilk called Chhabil are set up all over Punjab.
And apart from the many references to buttermilk in Vedic mantras, Lord Krishna’s most endearing and delightful avatar is as the little Maakhan Chor, the Divine Purloiner of Butter. So, the exquisite idol of the child Krishna in the famous Udipi Sri Krishna temple holds the buttermilk churn (manthan) in his right hand and the rope used to turn the churn in his left. It is said that churning butter from buttermilk symbolizes the Lord's role in helping the devotee churn his own soul through devotion to realize the Divine. And in South India, buttermilk is an integral part of Ram Navami celebrations, served as prasadam at temples along with kosambri, panaka and panchamrutham.
And so it is only befitting that I end my buttermilk rhapsody with one of Purandaradasa’s most famous and beautiful composition – “Bhagyada Lakshmi Baaramma”. In which he begs for a visitation by the Goddess Lakhshmi. A composition ass simple, unpretentious, fresh and utterly satisfying as a glass of my grandmother’s buttermilk…..
“Sowbhayda Lakshmi baaramma
Gejjekaalgala dhwaniya torutha
Hejje mele hejjeya nikkuta
Sajjana sadhu poojeya velege
Majjige volagina benne yante
“O Goddess of Good Fortune, come
O Our Mother, come…
To the sound the anklets on Your feet
As You walk
As the good people get ready to pray
As butter emerges from buttermilk
O Lakhshmi of Good Fortune, O Mother
“Manasollasa” (meaning Happy State of Mind in Sanskrit) written by King Sovadeva III, son of the Chalukyan emperor Vikramaditya, is a vast encyclopedia describing in great detail the society at the time. It talks of royal feasts where buttermilk was sipped during meals and the last course consisted of rice and buttermilk with a little salt – just as it is eaten, centuries later till this very day all over South India.
No-Cook Buttermilk Kadhi
½ litre buttermilk
¼ fresh coconut
2-3 dried chilies
½ piece of ginger
Salt to taste
2 teaspoons oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
½ a dried red chili
5-7 curry leaves
Pinch of asafetida
Grind together all ingredients except the buttermilk to a smooth chutney-like paste, adding the ginger last. Add to the buttermilk along with the salt. Heat the oil; add mustard seeds and red chili. When the mustard stops spluttering, add the curry leaves and asafetida. Take off the fire and add to the kadhi. Stir well. Delicious with plain steamed rice and a salad.