All you need is yogurt, a vegetable, and a few spices.
Not quite a sauce and not quite a salad, a raita is an easy and versatile yogurt-based side dish. In the heat of summer, when you’re feeling lazy, this traditional Indian accompaniment is the perfect, cooling foil to grilled foods–it’s been described as the Indian answer to coleslaw. There are zillions of recipes, but the basic ingredients are plain yogurt and chopped or grated vegetables. You can use leftover vegetables if you like and make it ahead; it keeps well in the fridge for a day or two. Depending on appetites, count on serving about 1/2 cup (125 ml) raita per person.
For about four servings:
1. Start with about 1 cup (250 ml) plain yogurt. I usually use 3.2% fat yogurt. If you use a low fat or nonfat yogurt, you may want to thicken it by straining it: Place it in a coffee filter in a strainer and let the whey drain out for about an hour.
2. Add about an equal amount of diced, chopped, or grated vegetables. You have lots of options, and you can mix and match.
- Cucumber. Diced or grated cucumber is the classic raita vegetable. Consider the cucumber version your all-purpose raita. If you tone down the spices, it works with many non-Indian foods, especially Middle Eastern or Greek dishes.
- Potato. If you have a leftover baked or boiled potato, chop it and toss it in.
- Beets or carrots. A cooked beet, diced, will turn the yogurt bright pink. You can grate raw carrots or dice cooked ones into your raita. The natural sugars in these root vegetables balance well with grilled foods with a lime-, lemon-, or vinegar-based marinade. I’ve never tried parsnip raita, but it would probably be delicious and unusual.
- Banana. Diced banana makes a raita that’s great with grilled or curried chicken.
- Leafy greens. Shred lettuce, in any of it’s many varieties, or spinach into raita. (You can wilt the spinach if you like.) This is helpful when you have a little lettuce in the fridge–not enough for a salad.
- Peppers. Dice green, red, or yellow bell peppers–raw or roasted.
- Okra. Slice okra into 1/2″ (1 cm) lengths and fry until crisp. Drain on paper towels before mixing into the yogurt.
- Eggplant. Chop or roughly mash the flesh of grilled eggplant for raita.
- Freshly grated coconut. As with banana, a fruity raita is good with chicken. You’ll need to crack open the nut, peel the brown inner skin and grate the white flesh. Don’t use the dessicated coconut in the plastic bag.
3. Spice your raita. I like to balance the spicing with the main dish: If my main has complex flavours, I keep the raita simple; if I’m serving some plain, leftover grilled chicken, I’ll make a richer, more flavourful raita. About 1 tsp (5ml) ground cumin, plus salt to taste makes a good, basic raita—for me, the cumin instantly signals Indian food. You can also use garam masala, though I usually reduce the amount. Raitas often benefit from a little heat; add a dash of hot sauce or a pinch of cayenne. Worcestershire sauce is good too; the tamarind in it is a common raita flavouring.
4. Chop in something green and leafy, if you have it. I use fresh coriander, parsley, celery leaves, or some chives or green onion tops. Other leafy herbs? Why not.
If you have access to an Indian grocery store, you can really have some fun experimenting with authentic Indian ingredients. Nigella seeds (kalonji) add a slightly peppery, onion-like flavour. A pinch of ground fenugreek (methi) adds a hard-to-describe flavour, one that will remind you of a good Indian meal. Fenugreek leaves (fresh or frozen) have a slightly bitter taste that balances the tart yogurt.
Here’s an interesting Seared Ginger Raita recipe (fresh curry leaves are another Indian grocery store item; if you can’t get them, this recipe will still be good without).
Photo: Andrea Nguyen
Have fun with your raita. Everything, except the yogurt, is optional!