Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Cucumber Parfait: What is "Raita" and Why Do I Care?

It took a long time for me to learn to read south Asian recipes.  Sometimes the author would use words I wasn't used to and I'd be second-guessing myself, like "curd" instead of "yogurt."  Other times they'd use words interchangeably, leaving me flounderingly unaware that cilantro and coriander are the same thing (they totally are, trust me).  Now and then I'd even avoid a recipe altogether because of the ironic and ubiquitous "chilly powder" error that plagues countless recipes and products.

(Cue Inigo Montoya here.)

Raita is a cucumber side dish.  Remember the tzatziki craze a few years back, when everything under the sun was covered in yogurt & dill and stuffed into a pita?  Raita is in more or less the same family.  At its heart raita is diced cucumbers in cilantro- and mint-flavored yogurt.  The rest is up to you.

If I can globe hop for just a minute, something I have learned is that in Japanese cooking there is a lot of emphasis on variety: a mixture of different colors, textures, and flavors should be present at every meal in order to help both tongue and eyeballs feel satiated (seriously).  One of the ways they accomplish this is through having pickled side dishes - just a few bites is enough sour or bitterness to round out the meal, plus it often adds a bit of crunch.  Sounds crazy, but it works.  In my mind raita is in the same vein.  It's a slightly sour, slightly crunchy side dish to help satisfy your taste buds and your brain.

Here's the neat bonus feature of raita: it helps to cool your mouth down after spicy foods in two different ways.  Ever heard the old wives' tale that you should drink milk after eating spicy food?  One theory goes (and forgive me, I can't verify if this is true or not so I fully invite a more informed opinion to chime in here) that the nervous system's reaction to capsaicin - the chemical in the chili pepper that makes your insides scream in burny agony - is partly blocked by the proteins in dairy.  So that's one way.  The other way is that yogurt, mint, and cucumber have a psychological cooling effect on the tongue, helping you to feel cooler even if you aren't actually cooler.

We've all tried too hard now and then.

I'm going to share with you my own makeshift recipe for raita.  I'll offer some suggestions for ways to change or improve upon it, but in the end it comes down to what makes you happy.  Think of it like a cucumber parfait: the yogurt and cucumber are the key players, the rest is up to your imagination and your tastes.

Raita for Beginners

I started out with around 1.25 cups of plain yogurt.  I happen to have Greek yogurt in the house at the moment, but regular yogurt obviously would work well so long as it's the plain, unflavored kind.  Don't use vanilla, it will be gross.  As you can see, yogurt straight out of the container's a little lumpy.

Thirty seconds with a whisk fixes that and makes the next few bits a lot easier.


To the yogurt I added ~2 tsps of honey.  You can skip the honey altogether if you'd like, or add more according to your tastes.


Next I grabbed a small amount of fresh cilantro and fresh mint, about 2:1 in terms of volume.

If you have coriander-mint chutney (remember: cilantro and coriander are the same thing), you can use that in place of the fresh herbs.  You could probably also use dried herbs here, but I haven't experimented with that so I can't tell you how much to use.  Dried herbs are usually much more potent than fresh, so start small.

If using fresh cilantro and mint, chop them up very, very finely:
Lookin' fine.

Then add them to the yogurt.  If you want, you can also add any of the following: garlic powder, salt, onion powder, cumin powder, or other veggies like diced bell peppers or shredded carrots.  I don't use any of these, but it's nice to know your options, isn't it?  Feel free to play around and report back.

I've run out of descriptors.  

Next I diced up half a cucumber, a tomato, and 1/4 of a red onion.  The onion I chopped more finely than the cuke and tomato because I personally don't like a big bite of onion in one go.  Unlike Doc, who can eat raw onions like an apple.  (I think his taste buds are broken.)

Yum!  Dig those colors!

And that's the basic recipe!  I've also seen people put chilies, jalape├▒o peppers, or red chili powder in raita as well, but I skip that bit because that ruins the whole "cooling off" thing for me.  Maybe that's why so many people struggle with the chilly/chili difference...?


So there you have it!  The ratio of yogurt to veggies isn't crucial.  None of it really is.  I wanted to get off to an easy, stress-free start.  Next up is a turkey curry, so stay tuned!

Plays well with others.


  1. This sounds delicious, especially because I love all of the ingredients! It sounds easy to make and I concur that a variety of colors on the table is pleasing to the eyes !

    1. I've discovered it's also excellent as a dip on whole wheat crackers. Nice way to get some veggies in and pretend it's junk food!