Adventures in Cooking: Real yogurt

Majida Rashid

“Hey yogurt, if you are so cultured, how come I don’t see you at the opera?”
— Stephen Colbert

Yogurt has been consumed in South Asia, the Balkans and the Middle East since antiquity. Even pottery from the Neolithic period have indicated evidence of storing milk. They must have preserved it by curdling it.   

It is also believed that Mesopotamian herdsmen around 10,000 BC carried milk in bags that were made of goat stomach. The heat and the acidity of the bags changed the milk into something tangy, which gave birth to yogurt.

The word yogurt comes from Turkish yo?urt (pronounced as yow-oort). Turks took yogurt to Europe during the Ottoman Empire. Its spelling changed to yoghurt after arriving in Great Britain and then to yogurt when Middle Eastern immigrants brought it to America in the 17th century.

It’s the lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus that ferment milk into yogurt. Yogurt is rich in calcium and milk protein and amino acids. In Iran and Pakistan, a diet of plain yogurt and rice is eaten to take care of an upset stomach. 
Growing up, I always ate homemade yogurt with meals during the summer. My mother would heat pre-boiled buffalo’s milk to a lukewarm temperature. Then she would stir in a couple of tablespoons of yogurt from the previous day, cover the container, wrap it in thick blankets and place it in the warmest area of the house. The yogurt was always ready by lunch the next day.

Some shops in Peshawar, Pakistan, sold only yogurt, which was set out in huge clay trays. Shopkeepers would cut squares of yogurt using a metal rectangle with a wooden handle on the top, similar to a stainless-steel pastry cutter. 

Yogurt sold in Shiraz, Iran, was less sour than I was used to. It was packaged in more sophisticated containers in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. I took it for granted that real yogurt would be available around the world; what a narrow outlook I had. When I visited America in the 1980s, not only was yogurt not easily available in mainstream markets as it is now, but the yogurt was a gooey white jellied thing which, like a slime, dribbled from the spoon. I take the fifth about its flavor. Real yogurt can be cut with a knife.

While the quality has become better and more brands have appeared in American stores, nothing is like real yogurt. The difference is because gelatin is used to set the milk instead of yogurt culture. Using gelatin to make yogurt is not heard of in countries where yogurt is an integral part of the diet. 

Yogurt drink made with yogurt, drinking water and sometimes a pinch of salt is called Lassi in Pakistan, Doogh in Iran, Ayran in Turkey, Laban zabadi or Laban shurub in Arab countries. 

Chunks of dried yogurt called Karoot was sold in the Peshawar bazaar. Pregnant women ate it as a snack. Karoot, Kashk or Jameed along with fresh yogurt is commonly used in the Middle East and Central Asia to make soups. Here is a Turkish soup recipe. 

Turkish Soup with Yogurt

Makes 2 – 3 servings


For the soup

4-6 cups water

1 cube chicken bouillon

1/2 - 1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup short grain rice

1/2 - 1 cup yogurt

For the garnish

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/2 -1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon dried mint


1. Boil together the water, bouillon and salt.

2. Wash the rice and add to the bouillon-water.

3. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover and cook for an hour or until the rice is very soft and the soup thickens. The thickness of the soup can be adjusted by adding boiling water. 

4. Beat 1/2 cup yogurt and mix some of the hot soup into the yogurt. Make it a dropping consistency.

5. Remove the soup from the heat and mix in the thinned yogurt.

6. Taste and add more yogurt if desired.

7. Return the pan to the heat and cook for a minute. Do not boil the soup after adding yogurt as it will curdle.

8. Pour into a serving bowl and leave aside.

9. Melt the butter and add paprika. 

10. Stir until the spice foams.

11. Using a teaspoon pour the mixture in a circle in on top of the soup.

15. Sprinkle with the mint and serve immediately.