Some years ago I visited a spot near Lahore in response to an invitation from an old colleague, who had decided to spend retirement in the rustic surroundings of his native village. In accordance with arrangements I parked the car near an ancient water tank overshadowed by what must have been a very old banyan tree and accompanied by a guide, thoughtfully stationed there by the host, began following a narrow track running parallel to a small water channel or ‘rajbah’ that ran across several acres of luxuriant green wheat fields.
Rounding a bend, I saw four men sitting on the grass fringing the watercourse, enjoying what looked like a well-deserved lunch break consisting of vegetable curry, pickle and ‘rotis’. A metal container, usually carried by milk vendors, stood at hand with some stainless steel glasses half filled with butter milk or ‘lassi’. My embarrassment at the unintentional intrusion was multiplied, when the eldest in the group stood up and invited me to share their meal. No amount of explaining that I was already on my way to lunch, had effect until I agreed to drink half a glass of salted ‘lassi’ with them.
As the refreshing beverage flowed down my grateful throat, the fields around me faded into a nostalgic scene, featuring a middle aged female sitting on a low stool in front of a colorfully adorned wooden apparatus shaped like the English alphabet ‘T’. Attached to the apparatus was a ‘madhani’ (wooden beater) with a long shaft, extending vertically into a terracotta vessel or ‘chaati’ containing homemade yogurt and water. A long leather strip with toggles at both ends was wrapped round the shaft and held in place by a groove. The woman held both toggles alternately pulling them in a vigorous rhythmic motion that spun the ‘madhani’ inside the earthen vessel. This wonderfully gracious lady was my late mother, churning the mixture inside the ‘chaati’ into butter and its byproduct - ‘lassi’, laying the foundations of my passionate love affair with the subcontinent’s ‘King of Drinks’, which holds the place of honor in copious quantities, upon my lunch table to this day.
The versatility of ‘lassi’ can be gauged by the fact that it has many forms, each varying in taste and texture, but with the same effect – healthy satisfaction. Other than the generic beverage described above and referred to as ‘Chaati di Lassi’, there is also the ‘Adh Rirka’ or the half churned creamy foam topped wonder, made from yogurt and milk with a dash of water. Served in tall glasses and flavored with sugar and salt or both, it adds an unbelievable dimension, when used to wash down a copious Lahori breakfast of ‘khaddan’ (stew made from the inner jowl of a cow), trotters (pai) and ‘Kulchas’. Adding a couple of rich ‘peras’ (a confection made from reduced milk and sugar) creates a variation of the ‘Adh Rirka’ fit for an iron stomach and a wrestler’s disposition. ‘Peray wali Lassi’, as the concoction is popularly alluded to, is available at a few selected spots inside the walled city, while I was surprised to see it being made at a milk shop in Multan’s old quarter.
It was during the good old days, when ‘basant’ was celebrated by Lahoris with unabashed fervor that I took a ‘modern’ family on a trip, to experience the real soul of this great city. I told them that they would be treated to a refreshment unlikely to be forgotten for years to come. We soon arrived at our destination – an old ‘Peray Di Lassi’ shop inside Mochi Gate. I could see the horror on my guests’ faces when the tall glasses were brought to them, but I was rewarded, when their expression changed to genuine ecstasy. The realization that they would not be able to cope with the richness of the drink came to me, when half empty glasses were left on the table, as we returned home. The iron stomach theory was proved, when the family were prostrated by a severe bout of indigestion and nausea for the next twenty four hours.
Mirza Ghalib is reported to have said that real joy of eating mangoes could only be experienced if this prince amongst fruits was sweet and available in large quantities. The celebrated poet was perhaps expressing a common sentiment that manifests itself in mango parties, which cannot be called as such, without an unlimited quantity of ‘Katchi Lassi’ made of lightly salted milk diluted with water. It is said that the concoction neutralizes the effects of over eating the fruit.
So it is, that ‘lassi’ in all its forms, continues to rule unchallenged by the plethora of shakes and smoothies and it is to this ‘King of Drinks’ that I dedicate this week’s piece.
The writer is a historian.