Photograph by Noa Jones
Photograph by Noa Jones

Curd. It’s not a pretty word. It brings to mind tea accidents, milk slipped into lemon infusion, coagulation, spoilage, and mysterious nursery rhymes involving innocent girls and dangling spiders. But I began using the term with regularity during an extended stay in Bodhgaya, India.

It was near there that Prince Siddhartha, yearning for the cessation of birth and death, spent six years as an ascetic in the woods, his daily diet consisting of one jujube, one sesame seed, and one grain of rice. The sight of his emaciated body was “a source of joy to the eyes of others, as the moon in autumn is to the night lotuses,” wrote Ashvaghosha in his singularly beautiful text, the “Buddhacarita.”

But then Siddhartha changed his mind. Inward tranquillity, he realized, requires an outward appeasement of the senses. He stepped out of the forest and was met by Sujata, the daughter of a cowherd chief, dressed in a sari like “dark blue water wreathed in foam.” From Sujata he accepted his first proper nourishment and thus gained the strength to sit under the Bodhi tree, where he attained enlightenment. Some say it was milk, some say rice pudding, but most agree it was a form of curd.

Bodhgaya is a place of lepers and lamas, golden stupas and stinking ditches, piles of guava fruits and marigolds, living Buddhas, dying traditions, brilliant colors, brilliant faith, fake pearls, fake preachers, authentic yogis, sycophants, blessings upon blessings upon blessings… and a lot of flies. It was difficult to eat anything with complete confidence during my stay. I had seen enough larvae-studded carcasses at Indian butchers and enough truckloads of sickly chickens to swear off meat for the duration. But after hours of prostrations under the tree, I would teeter around the dusty streets of Bodhgaya with the greenish palor of an anemic. I craved protein, something, anything, other than the bleached rice, watery daal, overcooked vegetables, and starchy momos found at the stalls.

Then I met my own Sujata, a lovely Brazilian pilgrim who gave me a pot of her homemade curd, also known as yogurt, or dahi. Tasting this pure, cool, probiotic substance, I think I might have had my first experience of Buddha, a revelation, even if it was merely gastronomic. There was a thick layer on top where the creamier part of the milk had risen. She’d purchased the milk from a paju ama—a Tibetan woman who kept cows—boiled it and strained it and then made the yogurt using little red-clay pots from the market. It had been tended to every step of the way. It was incredibly satisfying.

The tale of Buddha’s first meal could be read as symbolic. Something pure provided the strength and clarity necessary for a seeker of the truth in his final lap toward enlightenment. Something motherly and whole, sensual, created by the sacred and gentle cow.

When told I could manufacture my own, I doubted, and then practiced, and then believed.

Science and Math
Yogurt is made by introducing certain bacteria, usually streptococcus thermophilus and lactobacillus bulgaricus, into milk and encouraging it to grow. The bacteria- produced lactic acid coagulates the milk into a curd.

Sounds scientific, but making your own is easy, and it saves money. A little yogurt math: A thirty-two-ounce container of organic yogurt will cost about five dollars in New York City. One gallon of organic whole milk costs about six dollars. There are 128 ounces in a gallon, so one could potentially make over three times more yogurt for about the same amount of money.

What You Need
Two things—milk and starter culture. Starter means either a prepackaged bacteria or one cup of plain, live-culture (unpasteurized), whole-fat yogurt from the store. You don’t need any fancy equipment, just a saucepan, a strainer (optional), and a clean, airtight container (yogurt bacteria needs warmth to grow, and so do other, less friendly bacteria, so make sure that your containers are sanitized).

Sujata didn’t have a thermometer, and neither did my Brazilian yogurt guru. She gave instructions that have never failed me: “Boil the milk until the heat goes into the finger” (recite this with a Portuguese accent for full effect). Meaning when you dunk your pinky, the heat strikes deep through the finger but doesn’t burn. Try it with hot water first until it makes sense. You don’t want to kill the live bacteria. Think incubation. Or, if you don’t trust your finger, 110°F is the standard.

( How to )
Heat a gallon of milk until it goes into the finger, take it off the burner, skim off the skin, push the starter yogurt through the strainer, and stir into the milk gently (too much air will slow the process). One nice touch is to add dry milk powder to the pot before adding your starter; that will give you a thicker, richer yogurt. Pour the milk into your container, which should be warmed up so that it doesn’t change the temperature of the milk.

The trickiest part of the process is making sure the inoculated yogurt remains warm enough to breed the bacteria for four to five hours. In India, I would seal it in a soup thermos and leave it in the sun. On cooler days, I would wrap it in a blanket or put the whole thermos in a larger pot of hot water. I’ve seen others use a gas oven, switched off (the pilot light alone is often enough).

Enjoy
You can tell if the yogurt is ready by tilting your container and seeing if it holds together. Before you start eating, set aside a half cup to use as starter for the next batch. There may be a watery layer on top. My friend Shyang Jen, the Martha Stewart of Taiwan, explained that this is the whey, finally answering my childhood quandary about the mystery of curds and whey. When I told her I was writing about yogurt, she set about making several varieties in a variety of pretty containers, showing me that fruits or slivered almonds can be placed at the bottom of your container. She said that the whey can be used as a moisturizing mask.

Then, if I may borrow the words of Ashvaghosha, as your frame reaches full roundness, as your skin bears the loveliness of the moon, and as your digestive track develops the steadfastness of the ocean, may it benefit your practice!

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