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Meet Padma Lakshmi’s Genius, *Almost* No-Cook Summer Comfort Food

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Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.

Padma Lakshmi’s Yogurt Rice
Padma Lakshmi’s Yogurt Rice

Tonight’s forecast in your kitchen: a still, forceful 90° F. Your fridge is a flickering wasteland, save for a tub of yogurt, a Tupperware of leftover rice, half a cucumber, and a lone, crinkled green chile.

But you can still sit down in a matter of minutes to a dinner that’s cooling, creamy, and a little spicy, with addictive pops of crunchy texture here and there.

The dinner in question is yogurt rice (or curd rice), a simple dish made in homes across South India. Though it’s often eaten as a calming last course of a larger meal or made ahead for potlucks and lunch boxes, it’s equally good as a speedy, almost-no-cook dinner.

“This is pure comfort food!” author and Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi wrote to me. “We tend to eat it as either a light summer meal at lunch or dinner with kachumber: a salad of fresh tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers tossed with lemon, salt, and chili powder.”

This is how quickly you can have Lakshmi's version of yogurt rice on your side: Mix together nearly-equal parts plain yogurt and cooked rice, then throw in chopped cucumbers for more cold crunch. (If you're making the rice fresh, you have permission to overcook it—so this is the perfect home for every batch of rice that inexplicably turns to mush.)

Lakshmi recommends stirring all this with your hand, as is done in India, and seems to delight in asking her unfamiliar hosts to handle this part of the recipe (see her segment on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and this Health magazine demo).

Though unfamiliar myself, I loved stirring by feel, not only for the practical reason that you can find and break up stubborn clumps of rice, but also because it elicits the same joy that Amelie felt secretly plunging her hand into bags of dried grains at the market. I'd argue a dip in cold yogurt is even more calming.

Then comes the fun part that will wake you back up: quickly frying the spices, chiles, and lentils to a golden crisp, then pouring them, still sizzling, over the yogurty rice. This move is referred to in Indian cooking as tempering the spices, or making the tadka. It's an effective, satisfying way to crack open flavors and hone crunchy textures (and make your kitchen smell instantly better). Once stirred in, the oil carries the heat and pulse of the tadka through the yogurt rice.

If you can’t easily find some of these ingredients, they’re worth seeking out (try ordering them from Kalustyan’s, a beloved New York institution and one of Lakshmi’s favorite stores), but it’s also okay to work with what you can get. If you’re thwarted finding urad dal, an Indian white gram lentil, for example, Lakshmi recommends frying cashews for a similar nutty crunch. And yogurt rice is certainly worth making even without the harder-to-replicate flavors of asafetida and curry leaves.

You can also always add to the template, as Lakshmi does: “Sometimes I add a little bit more vegetable to it in the summer—shredded carrots are really nice, or sometimes I fry diced green bell pepper with the mustard seeds.” There are at least as many such variations as there are families who make it. I love another, quite different version—firmer, topped with crunchy peanuts and some of the fried spices, shared by Simmi Sareen of the blog Bombay Foodie. This yogurt rice has ginger and sizzled onions. This one, cream. This one, mango.

Nikkitha Bakshani, our Associate Editor, and Brinda Ayer, our Books & Special Projects Editor, both grew up eating their families’ yogurt rice, and were generous enough to taste and weigh in as I was trying recipes. As a child, Nikkitha said, some of the comfort was in knowing that even if the rest of the meal isn’t what you were hoping, you know there will be yogurt rice at the end. In Brinda's family, the comfort was in having a go-to light, refreshing dinner after an ambitiously sized lunch.

And for home cooks everywhere, the comfort is in knowing that as long as you keep yogurt, rice, and spices on hand, you can always feed yourself and your family dinner. When everything else fails, yogurt rice is there.

Padma Lakshmi’s Yogurt Rice

Padma Lakshmi’s Yogurt Rice

Genius Recipes Genius Recipes
Serves 8 to 10
  • 5 cups cooked Basmati rice
  • 4 cups plain whole-milk yogurt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
  • 2 cups peeled and diced English cucumbers (in spring or summer), or 2 cups fresh pomegranate seeds (in fall or winter)
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 2 tablespoons white gram lentils (urad dal, found at Indian grocery stores,or chopped cashews are a good substitute)
  • 2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon asafoetida powder (found at Indian grocery stores)
  • 1 to 2 medium green chiles (preferably serrano) with seeds, diced, or more to taste
  • 12 medium curry leaves, torn into small pieces
  • Cilantro leaves or fresh curry leaves for garnish (optional)
  • To serve, mango or lime pickle or Padma's fresh green mango curry (as pictured and linked in the note above)
Go to Recipe

Photos by Julia Gartland

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]—thank you to our Associate Editor Nikkitha Bakshani and our Books & Special Projects Editor Brinda Ayer for responding to my call for people who "feel strongly about yogurt rice" and sharing their time and insights on this one!

Tags: Summer, Tips & Techniques, Genius Recipes, Dinner, Faster