September 28, 2017
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Hot Yogurt Soup

In Turkish cuisine, yogurt finds its way into salty drinks, nourishing soups, and meaty pastas.

If I could commission Norman Rockwell to paint the Turkish dinner table of my childhood, the final result would depict a little basket of pide (pillowy rectangles of bread scattered with black sesame seeds), a tall glass pitcher of water (no ice cubes, for Turks are always worrying that a cold is right around the corner), and a bowl of plain yogurt, preferably coated with a thin layer of kaymak (cream).

While the dairy aisles of most American grocery stores are packed with cups of strawberry, coconut, and blueberry yogurt, savory yogurt is the star of the Turkish dinner table. By watching my mother and grandmother, I quickly learned that if a menu didn’t happen to involve yogurt, a bowl would invariably appear at the table anyway (otherwise, the unlucky cook would be forced to bear complaints from the grouchy diners at the table). Turks love savory yogurt so much that their country’s de facto national nonalcoholic beverage is ayran, which is simply water, yogurt, and salt (my father used to whip this up before dinner on especially scorching summer afternoons). You can find cartons of it in grocery stores and bakkals (bodegas), nestled alongside the mineral water and Coca-Cola.

To get a better understanding of how yogurt became such a ubiquitous part of Turkish cooking, I spoke with Robyn Eckhardt, the author of the new cookbook Istanbul and Beyond. After roughly 17 different research trips over four years, Eckhardt wrote about the tradition and locavorism in the regional cuisines across Turkey—with a specific focus on the eastern part of the country, which has been less graced with tourism. She learned that for many decades, Turks had made yogurt as a way to preserve milk before refrigeration was readily available.

A typical Turkish breakfast spread

Vendors selling mushrooms and dairy at a market in Kastamonu

“So many Turkish ingredients that we think of as ways to add flavor were traditionally ways to preserve seasonal foods,” says Eckhardt. “And so it is with milk. Goat milk, sheep milk, cow milk—depending on where you are out east, you can find milk.” The affordability and ease of access to milk made yogurt a natural solution for families who were searching for ways to make the most out of what their livestock had produced.

Winter, the time of year when milk is most scarce, is when some of the most creative uses for preserved yogurt come to light. One of the most popular preservations is tarhana, which is cracked wheat mixed with yogurt or fermented milk. The resulting mixture is dried and ground up and can often be found as a conveniently packaged powder in grocery stores. During these colder months, tarhana is turned into a satisfying soup by adding meat stock and tomato paste—think of it as the Turkish mother’s alternative to chicken noodle soup. Tarhana is one of those soups that ages particularly well, thickening into a satisfying creamier texture after one to two days, and it benefits from a small sprinkle of dried mint.

One of the most unique recipes in Eckhardt’s book is a hot yogurt soup made with zucchini, wheat berries, and watercress, called ayran aşı. A chilled version of the soup, cacik, is meant to be eaten as a complement to a main dish and is made by gradually mixing ice cold water and yogurt (good Turkish yogurt is thick enough that most recipes will ask you to thin it out a little) and adding cucumbers and garlic, garnished with mint or dill.

Even in an era of pasteurization and refrigeration, when we no longer need to get creative about stretching out the life span of milk, Turks are inseparable from their yogurt. Turks mix watered-down plain yogurt with dried mint leaves, rosemary, and chile pepper, along with a generous amount of garlic. This is, essentially, the marinara sauce of my childhood; I’d drench manti, tiny dumplings filled with spiced lamb of ground beef, in generous spoonfuls of the stuff, and dip pieces of pide bread in the herbed, oily remainders. Similarly, Eckhardt describes one of her favorite dishes, eksili pilav (literally, sour rice), a risotto-style dish made of bulgur wheat, tomato paste, and this herbed yogurt sauce, as “pure, spoonable comfort food.”

While yogurt in hot, savory dishes like ekşili pilav and keledoş (a creamy lamb stew with yogurt, chickpeas, and grains) might seem a little strange to Western palates, yogurt is slowly making its way into meze spreads and Sweetgreen salads. We still have a ways to go before Americans start drinking ayran, but we’ve come a long way since my parents first came here. You really can’t imagine how many good soups, stews, and mezes have been ruined by a carton of deceptively packaged vanilla yogurt.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt
  • 2 cups cold water
  • ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
  • 8 fresh mint sprigs
  • 8 purple basil sprigs (or substitute Thai holy basil, lemon basil, or Italian basil)
  • 1 cucumber, peeled and cut into quarters

Robyn Eckhardt documents Turkey’s expansive cuisine from all regions in Istanbul & Beyond.

Refreshing and soothing to the stomach, Turkey’s yogurt drink, which is similar to an Indian lassi, is the best thirst quencher I know. It’s especially tasty as made in Diyarbakır, flavored with fresh herbs and cucumber. I drink it for breakfast and as a late-afternoon pick-me-up. It’s a classic accompaniment to meaty dishes like sautéed beef with caramelized onions and Urfa peppers. Turks like the drink very salty; I’ve reduced the amount of salt to suit non-Turkish palates. You can substitute other herbs— chervil, tarragon, dill, and/or scallion greens—for the mint and purple basil.

  1. Whisk the yogurt and water together in a pitcher or large bowl. Add the salt and stir to dissolve.
  2. Tie the herb sprigs together with kitchen twine. Submerge the herbs and cucumber pieces in the yogurt mixture. Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours, and up to 48 hours.
  3. Remove the herbs and cucumber from the yogurt mixture, squeezing them over the pitcher or bowl to release as much liquid as possible, and discard. Taste and adjust for salt if necessary. Whisk or froth the drink briefly in a blender before serving in tall chilled glasses. Ice is optional.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups whole-milk yogurt
  • 1 ¾ teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
  • 1 large cucumber, peeled or not, coarsely chopped
  • 1 ¾ cup coarsely chopped fresh dill and flat-leaf parsley or other mixed herbs, packed
  • 1-2 tablespoon softened unsalted butter, for serving (optional)

Robyn Eckhardt documents Turkey’s expansive cuisine from all regions in Istanbul & Beyond.

In Van, yogurt made from sheep’s milk (sometimes mixed with goat’s milk) is drained in cloth-lined sieves for up to three days, resulting in a yogurt more sensuously rich and creamy than any store-bought Greek-style yogurt. With a little advance planning, it’s easy to achieve the same result at home. Add salt, fresh herbs, and chunks of crunchy cucumber, and you’ve got a wildly flavorful dip. My go-to herbs for this recipe are dill and flat-leaf parsley, but you can use cilantro, chervil, mint, oregano, or even tarragon. The yogurt must be drained for at least 24 hours; the longer it drains, the more delicious the result. Don’t throw away the whey your yogurt gives off. It’s a healthy, refreshing drink and makes a great pickle brine. This dish is an essential element of the Van breakfast and often shares a plate with soft unsalted butter, which diners mash into the yogurt with a fork. It also works well as a meze, and I like it alongside roasted vegetables.

  1. Line a sieve large enough to hold the yogurt with a double layer of cheesecloth. Or cut two large cone-shaped paper coffee filters open along their seams and lay them flat in the sieve, overlapping them at its bottom. Set the sieve over a small deep bowl, spoon in the yogurt, and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours, up to 72 hours.
  2. Unmold the drained yogurt, which will now be a solid mass, into a medium bowl. Whisk in the salt, then taste and add more salt if desired. Stir in the cucumber and herbs. Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
  3. Stir in any liquid released by the cucumber before serving the yogurt cold in a shallow bowl, with the butter on the side, if you wish.

Oset Babur

Oset Babur is a writer in Boston, MA. Her work on everything from women-owned cider houses to unruly eyebrows lives at www.osetbabur.com or @baburoset.

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