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Definitive statements get people riled up, which is why I usually moonwalk away from them, but here goes nothing: You can’t eat a South Asian meal without raita. Raita is the savory yogurt condiment that’s served alongside everything—from Pakistani lamb biryani to Bengali shami kebabs and South Indian okra stir-fry. The tangy yogurt side offers a refreshing contrast and cooling reprieve from all the heavily spiced dishes.
When most people think of raita, they imagine the cucumber-flecked two-ounce cups that tag along in every Indian takeout meal, but, just as with chaat and dosa, the term raita can apply to a wide variety of yogurt-based condiments.
Raita can be as simple as dressing up plain yogurt with salt and spices, or it can be loaded with herbs, fruits, raw or cooked vegetables, chickpeas, and even boiled potatoes. Raita can be thin and light—ideal alongside rice dishes and curries—or thick and chunky—perfect for scooping up with roti and naan. Some raitas are happy to sit on the sidelines, while others are a meal in themselves.
Making your own raita doesn’t really require a recipe (but don’t worry, we’ve included one here), and is instead about mixing and matching flavors and textures to complement your meal. Fruit raitas work particularly well alongside rich meat dishes, while a light onion and herb raita is perfect for fish or vegetables.
I think of raita as just a versatile yogurt sauce to serve alongside all kinds of dishes—not just the traditional fare. Whether on a burger, spooned into stew, or served with grilled fish, raita presents endless possibilities and opportunities for inspiration.
Here are the steps to choosing your own raita adventure to serve with any meal.
The base of raita is traditionally unstrained whole-milk yogurt, but I like to break away from convention and reach for whatever fermented dairy I have on hand. I’ve used buttermilk, Greek yogurt, sour cream, and any combination thereof for the base of my raita. That’s not traditional, but I believe that as long as I start with something tangy and creamy, the raita can still perform its primary function, which is to cool and calm your raging taste buds.
The one thing I always keep in mind is what I want the final texture of the raita to be—do I want a thick dip for tandoori chicken or a sauce to drizzle onto channa masala? The answer to that question determines whether I’ll be sticking with the usual unstrained yogurt or stirring crème fraîche into labne for an extra dose of fat and body.
Spices and Seasonings
Yes, raita is meant to be cooling, but it’s anything but bland. Traditional seasonings include funky kala namak (unrefined Himalayan black salt), roasted cumin, and a pinch of sugar to mellow out the yogurt’s tang.
I like adding a spoonful of chaat masala to many of my raitas, because it has it all—heat, aromatics, and bright acid from green-mango powder. Other common additions are grated fresh ginger, black pepper, or Kashmiri red chili powder for heat. I incorporate whatever I have around, from bright ají amarillo paste to fruity ancho chili powder. I’m comfortable breaking from tradition as long the broader goals of raita are achieved.
Usually, raitas that will have cooked vegetables added to them (more on that below) are seasoned with tempered spices, which basically means that spices like mustard seed and asafoetida are quickly heated up in oil before being stirred into the dairy. This process of oil-frying the spices makes them bolder and more aromatic, so they can stand up to the cooked vegetables.
Mix-Ins: Vegetables, Fruits, Herbs and More
Adding seasoning to yogurt is all that’s needed to make “raita,” but mix-ins are often added for texture and interest. A pop of sweetness from a handful of pomegranate seeds or the pungent bite from a few slivers of raw red onion can often be enough, or you can fully load a raita and veer from condiment to side dish. One of my favorite raitas is boondi raita, which is studded with so many chickpea fritters that I can make a meal out of it all on its own.
If you want to take your raita down a hearty road, wilted spinach, fried eggplant, and tender sweet potatoes make excellent additions. For lighter raitas that might be more comfortable next to bold dishes, stick with fresh herbs, grated cucumber, sliced radish, and tart apple. South Indian cuisine frequently plays with sweet and savory, so fruit is right at home in a chili- and cumin-spiked raita.
Now that you're armed with these tips, it’s time to become the master of your own raita domain—a recipe-free world of unlimited tangy dairy possibilities awaits.
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