Yearning For Yogurt

Yearning For Yogurt

It’s about as ancient as prepared food comes: yogurt dates back some 6,000 years. It comes from the Turkish word yoğun, which means “thick” or “dense.

Central Asian <i>manti</i> dumplings are often topped with generous dollops of yogurt

Central Asian manti dumplings are often topped with generous dollops of yogurt

Starting 'em young: Kids learn to eat and drink yogurt early on in Kyrgyzstan Photo credit: Vlad Ushakov

Starting ’em young: Kids learn to eat and drink yogurt early on in Kyrgyzstan
Photo credit: Vlad Ushakov

Yogurt TalesThe story goes that yogurt was discovered by accident when nomads were carrying their milk in bags made of sheep stomach. They slung the bags over the backs of their camels, and the warmth and movement caused the milk to ferment and become a concentrated, semi-solid substance.

Yogurt from camels – with their milk and their swaying motion – is believed the origin of this Central Asian staple <br>Photo credit: Russ & Ellen Cmolik

The milk and motion of camels combined to make the first yogurt in the the origin story of this Central Asian staple
Photo credit: Russ & Ellen Cmolik

Over all these years, the process hasn’t changed that much. Warm milk is mixed with starter culture whose main ingredients are two tongue-twisting benign bacteria: lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophiles.  It firms up over a period of about twelve hours, becoming a creamy sour substance.  Billions of live cells prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, so it can be preserved without refrigeration for days.  Pretty convenient when you’re riding a camel in the desert.

Yogurt's a key ingredient in international cuisine, here with Georgian boiled cheese and mint <br>Photo credit: John Wurdeman

Yogurt’s a key ingredient in international cuisine, here with Georgian boiled cheese and mint
Photo credit: John Wurdeman

Medicinal YogurtA great benefit of yogurt is that the fermentation process converts milk into lactic acid, making yogurt much more digestible than milk for those with lactose intolerance issues – common in Asia. Yogurt’s also quite high in nutritional value, with its high calcium levels – good for bones – and “friendly” bacteria promoting the growth of healthy intestinal flora, a good thing.

Yogurt was introduced as a cure for intestinal trouble to the French court by an Ottoman Jewish physician in the late Middle Ages. Another Sephardic physician became the first industrial manufacturer in the late 1920s when he founded Danone in Spain. Perhaps you recognize “Dannon” from that?

Yogurt By Any Other Name….Yogurt spread from Mongolia to Central Asia, and on to the Balkans. It’s eaten daily in Bulgaria and Iran, where it’s known as mast. Armenians call it matsoon while in Georgia it’s matsoni. Yogurt drinks are consumed all the way from India (lassi) to Iran (doug) and Turkey (ayran).

My favorite yogurt is Bulgarian yogurt with apricot compote or with honey. I eat it at home at least once a week. On our MIR tours I eat yogurt every day, and add it to soups and manty, a Central Asian pasta. In Turkey and Bulgaria I prefer yogurt with honey, and I LOVE the Uzbek version: a slightly fermented yogurt drink that tickles my tongue. Try it, you’ll like it!

Many parts of the world use honey as as a natural sweetener in yogurt<br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Many parts of the world use honey as as a natural sweetener in yogurt
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Sample Local Cuisine on a Tour with MIROn most of MIR’s tours you’ll be able to sample a local variety of yogurt. Our small group tours that focus on cuisine, A Taste of Georgia and Chronicle of Russian Cuisine and Culture, are sure bets for those who want to delve further into the farm-to-table movement. MIR can also put together a custom, private tour to any of these destinations with a food-centric theme.

(Top photo credit: Helen Holter – For centuries, yogurt’s been a breakfast and cooking staple in Central Asia.)

PUBLISHED: December 23, 2014

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