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Raita Cools a Summer Palate

September 05, 1996|FAYE LEVY

Cooks around the world recognize the cucumber's affinity for yogurt. In Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants, you'll often find a cucumber-yogurt dip flavored with garlic. The French love concombres a la creme or cucumbers with cream, made with creme frai^che, which could be considered a super-creamy form of yogurt.

In the kitchens of India, this combination has been taken one step further. There is a whole category of wonderful dishes called raitas, in which yogurt is blended with cucumbers or other vegetables, along with fresh herbs and seasonings. Raita is not exactly a salad, not really a cold soup and not necessarily a sauce, but it can fill the role of all three.

Raita's time-honored function is to calm the fire of meat and vegetable hot curries. You eat the curry with rice, then soothe your palate with a spoonful of raita.

But raita is a delicious accompaniment to any menu, whether it includes hot food or not. It makes a great partner for brown or white rice, bulgur wheat, cooked lentils and pasta. Serve raita as a light dip for warm bread or crackers, or dilute it with a bit of cold water to turn it into an enticing cold soup.

The name may come from rai, a word for mustard seeds, though it's not clear whether this is because mustard seeds are often part of the dish or whether the name just refers to the fact that the ingredients are often chopped up very small. In any case, since raita is supposed to provide relief from fiery foods, the seasonings--which can include cumin, cilantro, fresh mint, green onions, ginger root or even a bit of chopped jalapen~o or cayenne pepper--are added with discretion.

The yogurt you choose determines how rich your raita will be. Whole-milk yogurt, alone or mixed with a little sour cream, gives the most luscious result, perfect as a sauce or dip. Yet raita also tastes great when made with low-fat or nonfat yogurt, which is the way I usually make it. For these leaner versions, you can use the type of nonfat yogurt labeled extra creamy or you can stir in some fat-free sour cream.

Some traditional raita recipes include diced tomato with or without the cucumber, while others replace the raw vegetables with cooked ones, notably boiled potatoes, steamed spinach or grilled eggplant. A sweet and savory raita is made with bananas and seasoned with cumin.

There are plenty of ways to create new variations of raita. Neelam Batra, author of "The Indian Vegetarian" (Macmillan, 1994), makes one from barbecued zucchini, green onions, cilantro, dill and sauteed mustard seeds. When she added yogurt to guacamole, she discovered that it kept the avocado from discoloring and came up with pale green avocado raita, flavored with chopped tomatoes, a touch of curry powder and toasted almonds.

Refreshing raita is so fast and easy to prepare and has so many uses that it's surprising this tasty dish is not better known in America. Serving raita regularly helps ensure there is calcium in your diet and protein in your vegetarian meals. You'll find raita appealing not only to cool the flames of hot food but to cool you off on a hot summer day.


Raita is often made with whole cumin seeds that are toasted, then ground, but you can use already-ground cumin for this faster version. Choose cilantro or mint, according to your taste, or use a little of each.

2 cups plain yogurt, nonfat, low-fat or whole-milk

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Dash cayenne pepper


Freshly ground pepper

1 to 1 1/2 cups finely diced cucumber (1/4-inch dice)

2 ripe plum tomatoes, diced

2 tablespoons chopped green onion, optional

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro or mint


Small cilantro or mint sprigs

Garden-fresh, hothouse or pickling cucumbers give the best results. If using waxed cucumbers, peel them. If the cucumber is full of large seeds, cut it in half and remove most of the seedy pulp. I usually dice the cucumber, but you can grate it instead.

Mix yogurt with cumin, cayenne and salt and pepper to taste. Lightly stir in cucumber, tomatoes, green onion and cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning. Refrigerate in covered dish until ready to serve. (Can be made up to 6 hours ahead.)

Serve raita cold in shallow bowl. Sprinkle with paprika to taste and garnish with cilantro sprigs just before serving.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

116 calories; 183 mg sodium; 14 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.41 gram fiber.

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