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.
“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.