Genius Recipes

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

July 11, 2018

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.

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.

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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.”

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Top Comment:
“So lovely to see an ever-comforting food (that I just ate for lunch) featured on one of my favorite sites My Mum’s version always uses dried ginger and dried red chilies in the tadka so that’s the way I’ve always had it (the dried chillies can then be squeezed on to the yogurt rice on your plate for some oily spicy goodness) And pomegranates and toasted cashews for a great pop!”

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.

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!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Kathy Eades
    Kathy Eades
  • Lauramcg
  • Gershmiller
  • MPM
  • Pam p
    Pam p
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Kathy E. July 26, 2018
For non-dairy, why not try coconut milk yogurt?
Lauramcg July 11, 2018
this dish sounds amazing--any suggestions to make it dairy free? I've seen tofu used ? thoughts?
Panfusine July 12, 2018
I think the clip with Ellen uses cashew yogurt.
Kristen M. July 12, 2018
Great call, Panfusine—Lauramcg, I agree that a non-dairy yogurt like cashew or coconut would be the closest substitute. If you wanted to play around with blending soft tofu and something acidic like lime juice, that could be interesting to mimic the creamy tang, too, but wouldn't be quite the same.
Gershmiller July 11, 2018
This looks amazing! Are the lentils cooked or uncooked before they go in the pan?
MPM July 11, 2018
They are uncooked. The hot oil makes them crunchy
Gershmiller July 11, 2018
Thank you!!
MPM July 11, 2018
So lovely to see an ever-comforting food (that I just ate for lunch) featured on one of my favorite sites

My Mum’s version always uses dried ginger and dried red chilies in the tadka so that’s the way I’ve always had it (the dried chillies can then be squeezed on to the yogurt rice on your plate for some oily spicy goodness)

And pomegranates and toasted cashews for a great pop!
Kristen M. July 11, 2018
Love the chile squeezing tip! Thanks so much, MPM.
Pam P. July 11, 2018
It makes me so happy to see people taking yogurt rice seriously as it deserves :-) this is true comfort food for the South Indian soul.
Kristen M. July 11, 2018
Very glad to hear it, Pam p—and I'm so happy to have learned about yogurt rice myself. If you have any favorite seasoning riffs, I'd love to hear about them so I can work them into my too-hot-to-cook rotation this summer.
Panfusine July 11, 2018
Oh man.. you've made my day with this comfort recipe.. South Indians Stereotypical Nerds, rebels and all the indecisives in between) EVOLVED with this manna we call Thayir Sadham!
Kristen M. July 11, 2018
Hi Panfusine, I'm so happy to hear this! I'd love to hear about how you like to eat Thayir Sadham at home and any favorite riffs, so I can start doing them, too.
Panfusine July 11, 2018
pretty much as you've described, Thayir sadham pretty much pairs with almost ANYTHING from just the white part of a scallion to tabasco (yep been there , done that, LOVED it) and everything in between. There is a particular beloved tradition associated with Thayir saadham , a throwback to childhood days called 'Kailey Kailey' (literally translated as 'on the palm - twice).. sharing the link.
Kristen M. July 11, 2018
What a gorgeous and soothing story—thank you for sharing it.
Kavitha July 26, 2018
As everybody said , THayir Sadam is truly a comfort food for South Indians . Also no lunch ends without THayir Sadam . A small tweak here is I add red grapes 🍇 in it after the tempering n mix well .