With a bevy of health benefits, both kefir and lassi have become more prevalent in the U.S.

Lisa White

The yogurt aisle at the grocery stores has boomed in recent years, as people have discovered the many health benefits of this probiotic-rich food. But there’s other dairy products that are also making big resurgences.

Kefir and lassi were once obscure products most likely to be found in natural food shops. Today, even the most mainstream grocery stores are likely to carry these drinkable yogurts, which offer great taste, a host of health benefits and versatile options for cooking.

“Sales of kefir and other drinkable yogurts are big business in the U.S.,” says Seair Lorentz, brand manager at Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery, located in Sebastopol, CA. Data from Chicago-based market research firm IRI shows that sales of drinkable yogurt products were around $900 million in the past year. “There are a lot of new plant-based alternatives entering the drinkable yogurt market right now and getting a lot of attention.”

“We know that today’s consumers are on a constant pursuit of delicious options to add to their diet,” says Kiersti Bird, brand manager for Broomfield, CO-based Wallaby Organic, which makes whole milk and low-fat kefir. “Kefir is great to try with breakfast or as a mid-day snack.” It can also be used in salad dressings, soups, curries and a variety of other dishes, although people hoping to replenish their bodies with probiotics should avoid cooking it.

Kefir: An Introduction

“Kefir is a cultured milk beverage that contains a variety of live and active cultures,” says Bird. “It tastes similar to yogurt, but is drinkable and doesn’t require a spoon, making it a delicious and convenient option for an on-the-go snack.” It’s also high in calcium, protein, B vitamins and potassium.

“There are essentially two types of kefir: milk kefir and water kefir,” says Lorentz. Both are made by adding crystals called kefir grains to a liquid. “For our kefirs, fresh milk is first pasteurized and then mixed with a blend of live and active cultures, prompting fermentation. This makes the milk slightly thick and causes it to develop a beautifully tangy flavor.” While many people like to drink it plain, kefir is often blended with berries, mango or other fruit, which provides a nice counterbalance to the drink’s naturally sour flavor.

While cow’s milk is the most common ingredient in the United States, Redwood Hill makes some of its kefirs with goat’s milk. It also offers a lactose-free cow’s milk version for people who struggle with dairy. Consumers who cannot have milk at all can buy or make kefir made with coconut, almond or other nut milks.

The other option is to add the kefir grains to a mixture of water and fruit, which provides sugar with the beneficial bacteria needed to survive. Water kefir is a slightly fizzy drink similar to flavored carbonated water or kombucha, which is a type of fermented tea.

Kefir is one of the many fermented foods rapidly growing in popularity in the U.S. Products like non-pasteurized sauerkraut, miso, yogurt and kefir are rich in probiotic bacteria. These microscopic organisms provide a huge range of physical and mental health benefits.

Jennifer Iserloh, a Hoboken, NJ-based holistic health coach, chef and author of “The Superfood Alchemy Cookbook,” likens the human gut to a jungle full of flora and fauna. “The more cultures you can introduce into your jungle—the more biodiversity you have—and the healthier your jungle will be,” she says.

“There’s this whole movement right now toward functional medicine and understanding the root causes of chronic illness,” she adds. “When you want to heal yourself at the root, you go to the gut. What people are realizing is that without balancing the gut, you’re not going to heal those chronic conditions—ever.” Fermented foods then become a necessity, not a luxury.

It’s important to note, too, that different probiotic bacteria serve different roles. One may help people digest certain foods; another may encourage weight loss, while still another will help in regulating hormones and mental states. The term “gut-brain axis” references this idea that what happens in the stomach has a surprisingly high impact on what happens in the brain. While these bacteria do occur naturally in the body, they’re constantly being killed off by things like antibiotics and over-the-counter medication, processed foods, lack of sleep, drinking too much coffee or alcohol, or even trauma, such as a car accident. That means the bacteria have to be replenished on a regular basis.

Probiotic cultures in pill form are available nearly everywhere these days, “but the one off the shelf can die quite easily,” says Iserloh. “In kefir and other fermented foods, they’re more likely to be living.” A pill may also contain only one or two types of probiotic bacteria, where fermented foods may have many more species. That’s why many people are now seeking out probiotic foods to add to their diet.

Learning about Lassi

Lassi is a drinkable yogurt that is made in much the same way as traditional yogurt. Milk is heated, cooled and cultured in a warm place until it has thickened. Water is then added to give the drink a lighter texture and more refreshing feel.

Lassi has a rich history in Ayurveda, a form of holistic medicine developed thousands of years ago in India. Even thousands of years ago, practitioners recognized that good health starts and finishes with the gut, says Karan Gera, founder of Monsieur Singh Lassi, New York City. “The science of Ayurveda is about making sure your stomach is healthy.”

Jaya Shrivastava, CEO of Austin, TX-based Sassy Lassi Yogurt Co., describes lassi as “smooth, slightly tart, naturally sweet and easy to digest.” Gera also emphasizes the drink’s tartness. The sour flavor created by the cultures helps highlight the sweetness of anything that is added to lassi, making it less important to add sugar to pull out that flavor.

When Americans hear the word ‘lassi,’ they typically think of a mango lassi. Because mango is not that common of a thing in some western cultures, there’s that exoticness to the fruit,” says Gera. The sweetness of a fresh mango is also exquisite with the drink’s sourness.

But in India, mango lassis are not as common. Salty lassis, which do have salt added but are what Americans might refer to as savory, are more traditional. “The way my mom used to make lassi is you gently roast cumin seeds, then you mix them with salt and maybe some fresh coriander leaves,” Gera says.

According to Ayurveda, lassi, like most other foods, should be consumed at room temperature. “Cold drinks are not considered to be good for the body,” Gera says. “When yogurt is colder, it’s thicker, and it shocks the system and, therefore, takes longer to digest. If it’s warmer, it’s easier for the body to absorb, and you get the nutrients faster. Also, if you let it sit outside, once it gets a little warmer, you get more of the flavor of the fruit or spices.”

Despite that recommendation, many people prefer to enjoy lassi cold. “On hot summer days, salted lassi is the welcome drink of choice that is offered to guests,” says Shrivastava. “It is light, icy cold and smooth, garnished with fried curry leaves, roasted and ground cumin seeds, and popped mustard seeds.” Lassis can also be topped with cheese and roasted nuts, sweetened with sugar and rose syrup, or made even richer with the addition of heavy cream.

Warm or iced, lassis have a special place in the hearts of many Indians.

“There’s a common saying whenever someone loses their temper in India. They say, in their own language, ‘Chill, have a lassi,’” says Gera. “It’s got that very refreshing aspect to it because it has that special tartness and is mixed with real fruit and spices. When it hits your brain, it refreshes it. There’s so much stress with modern life. Sometimes you want to take a moment and just have a real thing and not something processed.”

“Cooking” with Kefir

“Kefir is an incredibly versatile ingredient,” says Lorentz. “It can replace buttermilk in any baking recipe, including cakes, muffins and pancakes.” Besides providing great texture, using fruit-flavored kefir will add appealing flavor to baked goods. “Plain kefir is a great addition to dips and dressings, like green goddess or ranch.”

“Marinade bases are great with the salted lassi,” Shrivastava says. “Simply pour a cup of plain or salted lassi, add any spices or rubs you like, and pour it over raw chicken or meat. Let it sit in the refrigerator overnight, and throw it on the grill.”

To get the health benefits of kefir or lassi, though, it’s important not to heat it, Iserloh says. “It will kill the probiotic bacteria.”

She recommends substituting kefir for yogurt in smoothies or using it as the base for a cold soup with avocados, green grapes and almonds.

Gera used to make lassi ice cream, with flavors such as passion fruit chia and honey lemon with mint. While those products are no longer available, anyone with an ice cream maker can whip up a similar mixture at home.

Shrivastava has made cocktails with lassi. She recommends using rum with pineapple, mango or other tropical fruit-flavored drinks. Or try combining rose lassi with red wine.

It turns out that lassi is great for the outside of the body as well as the inside.

“Plain lassi is a great skin and hair conditioner,” says Shrivastava. “We regularly use it in India.”        

RECIPE: Mor Kuzhambu

Recipe provided by Jaya Shrivastava, CEO of Sassy Lassi Yogurt

Lisa White

1            cup plain or salted lassi

1            cup water

½           tsp turmeric

¼           cup freshly grated coconut

1            green chili or jalapeño pepper

1            tsp cumin seeds

1            tsp black mustard seeds

1            sprig curry leaves

5            okra – cut into 3 pieces each

2            Tbsp canola oil or ghee

To make:

1. Dilute the lassi with water and use a whisk to make smooth.

2. Add the turmeric and salt if required, and set on a stove to simmer on a low flame.

3. Meanwhile, grind the grated fresh coconut and green chili into a paste. Add the paste in the lassi and continue to simmer—a low flame is important.

4. Heat oil/ghee separately.

5. When hot, add the mustard seeds first.

6. Wait until they pop and then add cumin seeds and the curry leaves and fry for about 30 seconds.

7. Add the okra and fry until crisp.

8. Add the fried okra and seeds into the simmer lassi sauce and turn off the stove.

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