As a child growing up in India, Jaidesh Sethi remembers begging his mother and grandmother every day to make him lassi, a cool, refreshing yogurt drink flavored with fruit and spices.
“Mom was very smart,” he says. “She asked me, ‘Why don’t you learn to make it on your own?’” That suggestion, and the cooking lessons that followed, helped pave the way to 2010, when Sethi launched Dahlicious, maker of a range of organic, artisanal lassis, based in Leominster, MA. “I started Dahlicious in my own kitchen back in 2008 with a simple idea of bringing healthy, natural lassis to the American supermarket,” he says.
Often called the world’s first smoothie, the lassi is a creamy, drinkable yogurt in flavors ranging from plain to salted to fruity. The beverage has its roots in Punjab, in India’s northwest corner, where temperatures in the “hot season” can climb to 120 degrees F. Lassi is served chilled, sometimes with ice blended into it as with a smoothie.
Kulwinder Dhillon, owner and chief executive of Verka, a San Jose, CA-based maker of Indian dairy products, also grew up in India with lassi as a daily staple. “People in India consume lassi with breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he says. “It has a very important value in people’s lives.”
Lassi’s reach is global, with a growing number of lassi products available in grocery stores and natural food markets, and make-at-home enthusiasts creating their own blends sometimes using less conventional flavorings, such as avocados or roasted beets.
But no matter what the add-ins, yogurt is always the star of the traditional lassi. Indian-style yogurt is cultured slowly, which at Dahlicious means for 12 hours. In addition to a creamier flavor, this also results in a less acidic drink, according to the company. Manufacturers add their own proprietary blends of live and active cultures, imbuing lassi with healthful probiotics.
In India, Dhillon says the salted lassi is the most frequently consumed type. People add salt and black pepper to the yogurt to taste. “There’s no sweetness,” he says. “It’s a little bit tangy.” Verka’s salted lassi, like some other commercially-made products, comes already salted. Sweet lassi, with rose flavoring or syrup, is another traditional variety.
India’s prized Alphonso mango is generally the favorite among fruit-infused lassi drinkers. “In the United States, people have a sweet tooth. They prefer something sweet, not salty,” says Dhillon. “That’s the reason the mango lassi is more popular.” Dahlicious incorporates the organic Alphonso mangos for its “stomach-soothing enzymes,” vitamins and minerals, and pectin fiber, which research has shown to be helpful in lowering cholesterol levels. Other fruit-featured lassis offered in supermarkets include blueberry, strawberry and pineapple.
Indian cuisine is famous for its variety and blend of herbs and spices, and it adds dimension, health benefits and interest to lassis, as well. Featured seasonings may include turmeric, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory; cardamom, a digestive aid; ginger, which can alleviate nausea; and garam masala, a mix of these and other spices including cinnamon, cloves, cumin and bay leaves. Mint is another option, often enjoyed in summer. Due to its distinctive flavor, Dhillon finds that “it is consumed by a very selective community.”
Building on the centuries-old tradition, Sethi is working on an almond milk version.
“The lassi is still a very underrated product right now,” says Dhillon. He would like to see more purveyors in the field offering consumers Indian yogurt drinks as a healthier alternative to sugared sodas.
But lassi-lovers need no convincing, and are happy to spread the news. “Lassis can fix everything, including the most robust travel malaise and pronounced solo traveler funk (STF),” says LI Plato, a U.S. photographer and former chef, who has traveled extensively in India. “Lassis are perfect in hot, humid weather — particularly summer — and are surprisingly filling.”