Dahi: An Ayurvedic view of yoghurt

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Yoghurt, kefir and similar fermented dairy products are renowned as health foods and sources of probiotics. What do the texts of Ayurveda have to teach us about these foods?

 Ayurvedic writings refer to dadhi, a yoghurt-like product. Before we delve into what the Ayurvedic texts say about dadhi, the Indian fermented milk product, let’s take a few moments to be clear on what we are talking about.

  • The Sanskrit word dadhi refers to a lacto-fermented dairy product called dahi in Hindi. This, in India, is typically translated into English as curd.

  • In America, curd refers to the product obtained by curdling milk with an acidic agent such as lemon juice. (This is how we make paneer or farmer’s cheese). So the American word curd refers to a completely different dairy product than the Indian-English word curd. To make things simple in this article, we will use the word dahi for the Indian lacto-fermented dairy.

  • Yoghurt and dahi are not the same thing, although they look and taste similar.

  • Dahi is made in the home by transferring a spoonful of the previous batch of dahi to hot milk. It is then left to curdle at room temperature. Of course, room temperature in India may be pretty hot—but not always. In the hill station of Kodaikanal in South India, we successfully made dahi every day at a room temperature of 65’F. The lactobacillus culture of dahi, and its temperature preferences, will vary from one home to another.

  • Yoghurt, hailing from Central Asia and the Balkans, uses the specific strains Lactobacillus bulgaris and Streptococcus thermophilus. Heat-loving thermophilus has to be cultured at blood heat rather than room temperature. (Yoghurt is a Turkish word).

  • Kefir is another cultured dairy product hailing from Central Asia. Unlike yoghurt and dahi, kefir is made by adding kefir grains to cold milk and letting it culture at room temperature. It is a much richer and more complex culture than either dahi or yoghurt, thus multiplying the probiotic benefits.

  • In Kenya and Somalia various fermented dairy products are made, such as mursik, which is fermented in a specially prepared calabash and eaten with ugali, a maize or millet mush, while in Rwanda and Tanzania, raw milk is set out in an earthenware vessel overnight and spontaneously ferments due indigenous bacteria in the milk and the vessel. So there are a vast variety of different fermented milk products indigenous to different cultures.

 Having taken an overview of fermented dairy products, let’s see what Sushrut Samhita has to say about dahi. We may assume that these properties can be extrapolated to yoghurt, kefir etc.

General properties of dahi

  • Has an astringent after-taste

  • Is demulcent

  • Is heating

  • Builds sperm

  • Is vitalising

  • Cures catarrh, intermittent fever, dysentery, loss of appetite, urinary problems and general debility.

 Types of dahi based upon acidity:

  • Sweet dahi—greatly increases mucus, kapha and fat.

  • Acidic dahi—deranges pitta and kapha

  • Extremely acid dahi—vitiates the blood

This is dependent upon the length of time the product is allowed to ferment.

As we can see from the above, dahi is something to be used with care, as a condiment or side item in a doshically balanced meal.  Gulping down several ounces of cold yoghurt for breakfast could lead to all kinds of imbalances, depending upon the acidity of the yoghurt.

Types of dahi based upon milk source

1. Cow dahi

Cow dahi is demulcent, sweet and acrid, appetising and strengthening. It calms vata. It is a good condiment, imparting relish to the meal. This is often the best choice for vata (unless you are allergic to cow dairy). Cow dahi  is considered the very best type of fermented dairy product.

2. Goat dahi

This is a great choice for pitta and kapha, for it is lighter than cow dahi and calms deranged pitta and kapha. It is also curative for vata provocation and wasting diseases. It kindles appetite, and is helpful in haemorrhoids, breathlessness and cough.

 3. Sheep dahi

Sushrut does not hold a high opinion of sheep dadhi, a traditional food in many cultures around the Mediterranean. He states that sheep yoghurt aggravates vata and kapha, increases slimy secretions and can tend to derange all the doshas. It is tempting to speculate that these findings may be due to the breeds of sheep used in ancient India, which are quite different from those found in the Mediterranean countries. By contemporary nutrition measurements, sheep yoghurt is higher in calcium than cow yoghurt but also higher fat.

4. Strained dahi

Traditionally in India, dahi is thickened by straining through a cloth. This process—identical to that used to prepare Greek yoghurt, removes much of the lactose and whey, resulting in a product that contains less sugar and twice as much protein per ounce as unstrained dahi. Strained dahi calms provoked vata and is demulcent and restorative. While it is great for pitta, it does tend to provoke kapha.  “Greek-style” yoghurt may refer to yoghurt thickened with agents such as carrageenan. But you can easily make your own strained yoghurt by hanging it in cheesecloth.

5. Cream of dahi

To get yoghurt cream, you have to make or purchase yoghurt made from unhomogenized milk. Then the delicious yoghurt cream rises to the top. Cream of dahi calms vata, is heavy and builds sperm. It is considered aphrodisiac but is also hard to digest and can lead to mucus production, so it’s best not to overdo consumption of this product.

6. Non-fat dahi

Non-fat dahi is drying, astringent, constipating and increases vata. On the plus side, it gives relish to food, while being lighter than other types of dahi.

Sushrut also considers water-buffalo dahi, camel dahi, and mare’s milk dahi, which are not typically available in America, although they are all used by traditional herders in various parts of the world. Elephant dahi too is considered. He reserves his highest praise for dahi made from mother’s milk, the best kind of dahi and the best emollient.

As you can see, dahi is a wonderful food, but needs to be used with due thought and care. Next time, we'll look at takram, a dahi-based medicinal drink.

Alakananda Ma M.B., B.S. (Lond.) is an Ayurvedic Doctor (NAMA) and graduate of a top London medical school. She is co-founder of Alandi Ayurveda Clinic and Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula in Boulder Colorado, as well as a spiritual mother, teacher, flower essence maker and storyteller. Alakananda is a well known and highly respected practitioner in the Ayurveda community both nationally and internationally.

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