I don't want the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to ever end, for one cold, sweet, selfish reason: lassi, conveniently located for my lunch break. With the festival in full swing now through Monday, several ethnic food vendors have set up tents along the National Mall (usually a culinary dead zone besieged by overpriced hot dogs), cooking up everything from eggrolls to mole poblano. There's even beer for sale, but since it's during work hours, I prefer the plastic cups brimming with mango lassi.
What is a lassi? In my experience, it's a silky, iced blend of yogurt, water, fruit, sugar and spices, somewhere between milk and a milkshake in terms of thickness. It's unclear exactly how the word originated—Wikipedia suggests it was a corruption of a Hindi word for juicy (rassila), while American Heritage Dictionary traces it to Sanskrit (rasah)—but it seems to have entered the American culinary lexicon only within the past three or four decades.
The first reference I can find to lassi in a U.S. newspaper comes from a 1971 New York Times article, when a reporter visiting Karachi described lassi as "the esoteric whitish fluid that Pakistanis concoct by mixing yogurt with water and adding salt or sugar." But by 1982, the same paper's restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton referred to "lassi, the yogurt drink," without further explanation, when reviewing an Indian restaurant in New York.
The Brits have known about lassi since the colonial era, although it doesn't sound like they were fans. An 1866 dictionary describes lassi as "curdled, sour milk," and a British civil servant's 1872 description of rural Punjabi cuisine is even less enthusiastic:
"For drinking they collect quantities of sour milk...the milk is kept for months, till covered with green mildew and full of maggots, the stench of it is indescribable...this 'lassi' or sour milk."
Either the locals were pulling his leg, or lassi has improved considerably in the past century, I'd say! The most ubiquitous lassi flavor now seems to be mango, but I've also seen them made with banana and other types of fruit, or just plain and salty. You can find them in most Indian and Pakistani restaurants, and even at some eateries with no specific ethnic affiliation (Teaism here in DC, for example). Or simply make your own—try Saveur's cardamom lassi, Elise's mango lassi, or Eating Well's low-fat lassi with mangoes and peach sorbet, for starters.