In the Punjab region of India, they know from hot. With June temperatures regularly exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit and temperatures in the coolest part of the year staying above 70 degrees, the heat is no joke.
But the Punjabis also know how to cool off. Way back—perhaps as far back as 1000 BC—they came up with a cooling drink that not only refreshes the drinker, but also provides a solid dose of protein—important if like most Hindus you are vegetarian—calcium, a probiotic boost and other digestive benefits, and if you follow the ancient principles of Ayurvedic health, balances the pitta and kapha doshas and pacifies the vatu dosha.
But you don’t have to know anything about Ayurveda and the doshas to love lassi. Its popularity has spread all over India and, these days, around the world. A simple frothy blend of yogurt and water, it can be sweet or savory, plain or flavored.
“When you are in India, especially northern India, it is so hot,” says Jainy Thomas, my Nassau Community College colleague and guide to all things Indian. Born in New Delhi, she makes her home in New Hyde Park in a rapidly growing South Asian population. “At nighttime my mother would make us sweet lassi to have before going to sleep. It was a treat and it really cooled you down before bed.”
Jainy has brought me to Usha Foods in Floral Park on the Nassau/Queens border, where over the last two decades the South Asian population has exploded and Usha (which means “sunrise” in Sanskrit) has expanded to serve the whole community, regardless of what part of the region or what religion you come from. Pakistani, Jain, Sikh, Muslim, Indian, Bangladeshi, Hindu, Christian and increasingly Cambodian and Vietnamese—you’ll find them all at Usha chowing down or stocking up. And they drink a lot of lassi: plain or flavored with rose essence, cardamom, cumin or—the overwhelming favorite—mango.
“We sell about 40 gallons a day of each,” says Abhi Mathur, who has over the last 20 years helped his parents, Anil and Indira Mathur, build the business from a single storefront selling handcrafted sweets to a colorful full bakery, steam-table restaurant and catering business that threatens to take over the entire block. “Maybe a little more of the mango lassi.”
Yes, he said 40 gallons. Each. I made him repeat it. It turns out that when folks order from Usha for their celebration, meeting, religious practice, they also order copious amounts of lassi to slake the thirst of the participants.
We try the different lassis along with a number of the dishes that people flock to Usha for: samosas (I call them Indian empanadas), puris, masala dosas and more. The kids nibble on sweets like bright-pink chumchum from the kaleidoscopic selection at the counter.
The sweet lassis are so refreshing and they cool the palate and throat. The salty—which includes cumin—gives a tangy wake-up call. “This is like an Indian energy drink!” I say.
“Oh yes,” says Mathur, smiling and bringing even more food to sample. “I have one every day. It keeps me going.”
My favorite is the mango. More subtly sweet than the others, it also has a citric undertone that plays well with the yogurt tang. Traditionally it would be served in a handleless clay cup called a “kulhar,” but in our modern day it is in a plastic cup with a cover and a straw like an iced coffee.
Regardless of the container, this stuff is wonderful. With a meal or on its own, it makes happy in your mouth and cools you off in virtuous style.
“Lassi back then was such a treat,” says Jainy Thomas. “I remember it so vividly, when it was so hot we would sleep on the terrace. Lassi always takes me back.”