Be it the indulgent ghee-laden Mutton Biryani or a spicy, piquant platter of Chicken Kebabs, no North Indian fare is complete without the side of Raita, a dip made of yoghurt, salt and spices.
Although an indispensable part of an Indian meal, the origins of this yoghurt sauce are difficult to trace. The first written evidence of Raita is located in 19th-century culinary texts. Its name, linguists infer, is a portmanteau of two Hindi words—"rai" (black mustard seeds) and "tiktaka" (sour or pungent).
A similar yoghurt dip, named Pachadi, is also immensely popular in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It’s a spicier, tropical version of the Raita, and uses grated coconut and curry leaves in its recipe. In Nepal, Raita is known as Raito or Dahi Kakro, which literally translates to curd cucumber.
The primary function of yoghurt is to cool the tastebuds in between every bite, so that the spices in the dish do not overpower the palate. Therefore, perhaps the most common variety of Raita is the Cucumber Raita, in which grated cucumber is mixed in with whipped yoghurt and seasoned with rock salt, sugar, cumin powder, red chilli powder and chaat masala (Indian spice mix) and garnished with springs of coriander or mint. The freshness of yoghurt and the herbs undercut the greasiness of rich gravies and Pulao.
Due to yoghurt’s mild sour taste, it lends itself to extensive experimentation. So Raita can be made with almost any vegetable, fruit or herb. Fruits like pineapples, pears, apples, pomegranates and mangoes pair well with curd, and are often used in sweet and spicy Raita recipes. It can also be made with finely chopped vegetables like onion, capsicum, tomato and green chillies for an Aloo Paratha dip.
A popular type of Raita, named Boondi Raita, has deep-fried gram flour globules immersed in a bowl of runny curd.