A woman licking yogurt off John Stamos’s tan, shining face. A woman in the privacy of a cubicle, guiding a disposable spoon to her mouth in slow motion. A woman on a lawn chair, not speaking, never speaking, eating yogurt with her eyes closed.
For years, brands have invested in the performance of enjoying yogurt, in the sanitized naughtiness of cold, fermented milk. But key-lime-pie yogurt cannot approximate key lime pie. Yogurt is a pale and sour semisolid, never satisfying enough to function as dessert. Unless we’re talking about shrikhand.
Shrikhand predates the packaged yogurts marketed to Europeans and Americans with a taste for wellness. It’s yogurt as a convincing, over-the-top dessert, strained and strained until there’s nothing left but a dense and exquisitely tangy cream, sweetened to excess, then stained neon with saffron. The dish has roots in western India, where it’s sometimes served with puffs of deep-fried bread, and the best time to make it is now, when it’s too hot for real cooking.
At my grandmother’s old house in Nairobi, shrikhand was used to bribe my brother and me all summer long, to keep us still for the duration of a tedious religious ceremony, to not stare at the priest with 11 fingers, to stay awake when women sang for extended periods in a language neither one of us could understand, until we could finally run out into the yard with our stainless-steel bowls. Could a plastic cup of fruit-on-the-bottom have been used to negotiate this kind of deal? Nah.
The way to elevate regular yogurt into shrikhand-quality yogurt is by straining. Eventually the jelled milk proteins become a tightly knit mass that is thicker than a wheel of triple-cream cheese, collapsing with ripeness. My grandmother made the yogurt herself and pressed it in muslin between newspaper, changing out the sections as they became smudged and soaked through with whey, the cloudy protein-rich liquid. Eventually the yogurt would lose its wobble, at which point she might rewrap the muslin around it and hang it over a bowl for another day.
Starting with full-fat Greek yogurt makes this process a lot faster. Greek yogurt is already strained some, and thick, which means half your work is done. Still, there is something more to lose, or to gain, depending on how you see it, because the more whey you can squeeze out of the yogurt, the better the shrikhand will be. Let about 32 ounces of full-fat Greek yogurt chill in a mesh strainer or cheesecloth for 24 hours, and you’ll remove more than a half cup of whey.
So much home cooking turns a little into a lot, stretching bread or bones, using every last bit to serve more food, to more people. Not shrikhand. This is celebration food, and to make it is to indulge in some wastefulness, to end up with less than you started with, to choose pleasure over practicality.
My grandmother adds pistachios, and sometimes almonds, to the remaining yogurt, but she won’t tell me exactly how much of either to use. How much cardamom? “Not too much,” she says. How much sugar? “Until it’s sweet enough.” After a few minutes of repositioning our cameras on Skype so we can see each other’s faces, she turns her phone sideways, and my view is of the embroidery on her caftan and her brown, creaseless neck, shining with the heavy-duty moisturizer she puts on before bed. How much saffron? “Don’t be stingy,” she says, clicking her tongue, “you make this once in a blue moon.” And then the sound stops working and the picture quality drops and I think we’re both waving goodbye.
In the morning, though, there’s an important message from my grandmother urging me to sprinkle the saffron and cardamom directly into the yogurt, because if I infuse the flavorings in a few tablespoons of cream, as I usually do, it will thin out the shrikhand and undo all my work. Also, it will not produce the full effect.
The full effect: When you sprinkle the saffron right in, it bleeds. And just like the layer of basil leaves in Carmela Soprano’s lasagna, this saffron glitter is a signature. The color drags out, making bright, random flashes of orange where the saffron perfume will also be more intense, something like the cut, dried grass of a backyard you used to love, on the hottest day of the year.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times