Both bracing and satisfying at once, the fizzy yogurt drink is a point of national pride in Iran.
In Iran, doogh is as much a lifestyle as it is a drink.
Its basic ingredients are yogurt, herbs (usually mint and oregano), and some kind of liquid to loosen the drink (seltzer, whey, and water are all used). The dominant flavor is sour. During the steamy days of summer, it’s the fizzy, savory, refreshing beverage of choice for many Iranians. But it’s also so much more. Doogh is debated about and printed onto T-shirts. It’s even a YouTube challenge, in which people see how much of the drink they can chug in one sitting—made challenging because of both the intense effervescence and the heaviness of the milk. See here, here, here, and here.
The drink dates back several centuries: The word “doogh” originally meant “milk” in Old Persian; by the third and fourth centuries, it had come to mean “sour milk.” Eventually, it meant “yogurt diluted with water” in Middle Persian, and it was understood as a way to preserve milk when it starts to go sour. Today, its purpose is to both cool and aid in digestion. The probiotics in yogurt and the fizzy water—though sometimes still water is used—help counteract hot, spice-heavy meals like kebabs.
Naz Deravian, the Iranian-American author of Bottom of the Pot, distinctly remembers her summertime routine when she was growing up in Tehran: swimming, followed by chelo kebab (a traditional Iranian rice and meat dish), and doogh. Always doogh. “You’d been out swimming all day and you had your chelo kebab and this cold glass of refreshing doogh, which is salty and sour, with mint flakes swimming around,” she recalls. “Nothing hit the spot more.”
Adds Homa Dashtaki, the Iranian-American founder of White Moustache yogurt: “When you see it on the table, you know you are in for a feast. It always triggers a bit of excitement.”
The intense tang of doogh can be unsettling at first, Louisa Shafia, the author of The New Persian Kitchen, says. But because Iranian cuisine involves so many highly acidic ingredients, like pomegranates and tart cherries, people are used to flavors hewing that way.
So much so that doogh is a culture unto itself in Iran. It is bottled and sold like soda at convenience stores. Young people wear “Got doogh?” T-shirts. There is famous doogh, called Doogh Abe Ali, made from the waters of Cheshmeh Ab-e Ali spring in the Elburz Mountains near Tehran (it is believed that the spring magically appeared in an otherwise dry landscape). This particular doogh is so coveted that there are plenty of counterfeit versions floating around. People love to argue over the particulars, Shafia says: to salt or not to salt? Which herbs? Bottled or homemade? Carbonated or not carbonated?
People feel a sense of national pride for doogh. “There is nothing more iconic, to me, than that image of rice and kebab with a pitcher of doogh,” Deravian says. “It is unique, it represents who we are, and it has just been around for a long time. It’s not like kale. It’s not a trend. It has managed to stay popular.”
I made some for myself recently, using the recipe from Shafia’s cookbook. It didn’t make sense at first, tasting the fizz on top of the creamy yogurt. But on the third sip, I understood the hype. The salt made it addictive. It was like lassi that’d been electrified. Both bracing and satisfying.
But in the States, outside of the Persian population, doogh isn’t nearly as well known or widely available. Deravian tried to introduce it to her children, who were born in the United States, at a young age. “My kids love Persian food, but doogh is the one thing that is not palatable to them,” she says. “I think it’s the idea of a cold drink that is sour and salty. It doesn’t make sense to some.”
No one thinks about this more than Dashtaki, whose yogurt at White Moustache is inspired by the thick, creamy stuff she grew up eating in Iran. White Moustache has expanded from just yogurt into labneh, which is sold as a dip, and a flavored tonic made from whey. But Dashtaki is skeptical about trying to market doogh in the United States.
“My experience is that in the Western palate, sour yogurt translates to bad yogurt,” she concedes. “It is considered ‘off,’ or not good for you, or disgusting.”
Still, her forthcoming cookbook (and Shafia’s cookbook) has recipes for doogh. Dashtaki wants to include a write-up about how well the drinks pairs with the rices, kebabs, and stews of Iranian cuisine. “Maybe with some context,” she says, people will see doogh the way she does—as a craveable drink worthy of being a dinner table fixture.
“It is going to be my generation’s challenge to introduce people to doogh,” she says. Even as someone who lives and breathes yogurt on a daily basis, she admits, “I haven’t figured it out.”
“Maybe this doogh challenge is the way to do it,” she adds. And she’s only half joking.