If a connoisseur had to pick the top 10 Indian desserts, the luscious Mishti Doi and the equally sensuous Shrikhand would be right at the top of the list. Both are two-ingredient magic acts, and are enduring examples of tradition, and natural alchemy
As kids, we used to be fascinated with “Lal Doi”. While the world calls the red yogurt “Mishti Doi” — often mispronouncing Doi as “Doy” — which translates to “Sweet Yogurt”, Bengalis call it “Lal Doi” – Red Yogurt. That’s because, at sweet shops in Bengal, you can buy three varieties of yogurt — the basic sour (white), the sweetened version of the basic (also white), and the wonderful sweet red, which is luscious and creamy, a pastel crimson in colour, with a thick layer of fudgy fat that forms on top. This last one, the now commercially-available-everywhere, is the Mishti Doi.
Yogurt, for most of the country, is an ingredient. It is rarely had by itself, turning into raitas, or lassis, buttermilk, or yogurt-based gravies like kadhi or pulissery, or is used as a souring agent in meat and poultry marinade. Some families have the tradition of having a bowl of yogurt with lunch (something kids generally don’t enjoy), while the north serves thick, often homemade, yogurt with pulses and parathas. With the resurgence of probiotics and conversations about “gut health” and “good bacteria”, the last decade has seen a rise in daily yogurt consumption, and also the confusing obsession with frozen yogurt. Whoever needs to hear this: Froyo can be an alternative for ice-cream (if you have underdeveloped taste buds *eye roll*), but it isn’t a “healthier” one unless you are picking a sugar-free option. The thing about homemade yogurt is that, most of us purchase skimmed milk. Any sort of bacterial activity requires sugar and fat. Skimmed milk is deprived of both. That is why homemade plain yogurt is generally light, and watery, making it a great ingredient, but not necessarily tasty by itself. The packaged Greek yogurt looks alluring because it is smooth and creamy, something homemade yogurt rarely achieves. So, from a quick scan, yogurt is not a dessert option — with two exceptions, of course.
The Mishti Doi generally is a weekend lunch treat. It is common to see fathers and uncles walk home with a bulging bag of vegetables and fish in one hand, and a clay handi of Mishti Doi in the other, after their weekly shopping on Saturdays. I remember one of my septuagenarian relatives wisely postulating after a hefty lunch —“Doi er shuru aar Ghol er shesh” — which roughly translates to “the start of the yogurt and the end of the buttermilk”. I realised that he is talking about where the fat, and hence, the tastiest element, settles in both the products. The Mishti Doi, when made with good quality full fat milk, forms a wonderfully thick layer of fat on the top. A portion of the fat is to be served with every scoop, unless you are the darling son of the house and have no siblings, and no one complains about you polishing off all the fat in one go. The Mishti Doi ends a hearty lunch — never served for dinner — often mashed together with some rice itself as Doi Bhaat. Unlike the south Indian savoury varieties of curd rice, the eastern option is a sweet one.
Making the Mishti Doi though, as I recently learned the hard way, isn’t as easy as one might think, or various videos on YouTube might assure. The process entails caramelising the sugar to a deep orange almost-brown, and then stirring in the milk, reducing it by a third, cooling it to the right lukewarm temperature, stirring in the right amount of yogurt — whipped to smoothness, to aid culture — and then left to set overnight in a warm place. While measurements are available, several experiments have made me realise that too many variables are involved in this process. Firstly, while sugar might be a friend for bacterial growth, caramel isn’t. Also with sugar being hygroscopic, the yogurt-setting process becomes that much more difficult. How much sugar is enough for sweetness. but also isn’t detrimental to yogurt-setting, is a tricky balance to strike. Secondly, the sugar-milk concoction has to be cooled to the right “lukewarm” before stirring in the yogurt. What does that mean? I honestly don’t know. “Lukewarm” is such an ambiguous word. Slightly hot or cold, and nothing sets. A recipe video mentioned that the concoction should be lukewarm, “comfortable enough to dip a baby into and not make it cry”. I don’t know how to comprehend that. I don’t have a spare human baby lying around to help me with my Doi-making. Thirdly, the atmospheric temperature that plays a crucial role in setting the yogurt overnight is also, definitely, not in my hands.
So, after some unsatisfactory trials, I am sticking to buying a handi every weekend. Outside West Bengal, one can trust Sweet Bengal, and some Bengali restaurants. Danone and Epigamia do a fine job too. Epigamia actually replicates the layer of fat, although I feel it is added extraneously, and isn’t a natural occurrence of the yogurt.
Unpopular opinion: The only place you should be having Shrikhand from is Pune’s Chitale Bandhu. Period. I know that this might really agitate Maharashtrians in Mumbai and in other cities, but I am not apologising for this one. My mother’s from Pune, and Chitale’s Shrikhand absolutely bowled me over as a kid, during my yearly vacations to the city. I also think Chitale makes the best Bhakarwadi in the world, but that is a conversation for another day. I have also realised that the Shrikhand is a tad easier to make. It involves straining all the water out of the yogurt — I personally prefer buying full fat yogurt from a sweet shop and then hang-straining it through a muslin or khadi cloth for at least 4-5 hours before whipping it with sugar, cardamom powder, and saffron water for that bright yellow hue. These days, I prefer a pinch of food colour, because contemporary saffron is really losing its potency. This basic variety of the Shrikhand — creamy, the perfect balance of sweet-but-slightly-tart, aromas of cardamom and saffron — is a lovely companion for wheat pooris. I don’t mind a bowlful just by itself. I enjoy nuts in my Shrikhand too, a variety that is also commonly available. The summer variation, Amrakhand, introduces fresh mango pulp to the hung yogurt, making it a delightfully fresh and light evening dessert. I personally prefer draining out as much water as I can from the yogurt, so that, even after introducing the sugar, the yogurt doesn’t lose its creamy firmness. Evidently, I make better Shrikhand than Mishti Doi.
For those who “swear by” froyo, have these desi varieties instead. When picking them up from sweet shops that make them fresh and follow traditional methods, you are consuming something that is natural, zero-synthetic, and heartwarmingly satisfying.