Feature Sweet, tart, spiced or strained, yogurt is one Arabic food staple that continues to please.
Elias Fayad gets emotional when he talks about yogurt. "It's traditional in our culture," says the classically trained chef at Al Mashwa, a Lebanese restaurant on Airport Road. It's nearly lunch hour in this hopping restaurant, but Fayad makes time to offer tall glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice and to chat about one of his favourite ingredients. He's a sturdily built young man with intense eyes that go suddenly soft when he talks of home and the food of home. Not only does yogurt give colour to his tahini and "a gentle taste" to his moutabal, it connects him to a long tradition.
He observed that tradition when apprenticed for three months in a mountain village learning, among other skills, how to make yogurt, or laban. How to warm the milk just so, how to add the culture, how to let it ferment, then how to drip it through a cheesecloth bag so the yogurt loses some of its moisture, turning it eventually into the denser labneh. "You see the father and the grandfather, the son and the grandson. They make yogurt for themselves, they make it for their neighbours. In Lebanese cooking, you're always working with yogurt," Fayad says.
Yogurt has long been a staple in this part of the world. Healthy, easy to make, even easier to buy now that it is mass produced, yogurt is also infinitely adaptable. Add it to cucumber, salt, a pinch of mint - you have a salad. Whip it up in the blender with a banana and a splash of mango juice - an instant smoothie. Cook with it, bake with it. Yogurt adds depth, tang and bacteria that are actually good for us.
Lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermaophilus (it is easier to get your tongue around a spoon of yogurt) are the living organisms that convert pasteurised milk into yogurt during fermentation. In yogurts advertised as containing "active live cultures" - these supposedly boost the immune system and prevent gastrointestinal infections - lactobacillus acidophilus has been added as well. What are the origins of this near-perfect food? Some food historians speculate that yogurt comes from the Balkans, where nomadic tribes found that allowing milk to thicken and partly sour was a way to preserve limited supplies of fresh milk. Larousse Gastronomique credits Turkey for being the birthplace of yogurt. Now, of course, we find it everywhere. Including Abu Dhabi, where Milco has been producing yogurt for the past 35 years and is the current market leader. During my recent factory visit, I stood in a humming, stainless city of tanks, gauges and pipes, the plant where 15 different varieties are now produced.
"We started out just making plain, full-fat yogurt," says Emily Billotti, the events and public relations manager for National Food Products Co, which owns Milco. Over the years, she adds, the company has grown with the consumer, adding low-fat yogurts, flavoured yogurts and, most recently, peach and strawberry smoothies. But in this region, full-cream, plain yogurt still rules. (The market value for plain yogurt is Dh350 million, according to Billotti.) "Organic yogurt, low-fat yogurt, flavoured yogurt are not that big with either our Indian or Arab customers," says Carmen Neary, Milco's quality assurance manager. "With both Indian and Lebanese cuisine, plain yogurt is just part of the meal."
As for the flavour of that deceptively plain yogurt, Neary says in-store research plus continual taste-testing - each batch is sampled repeatedly in the plant's lab for pH levels and other factors - keep it consistent. "Not too sour, not too sweet, just the right balance. And creamy," she adds with a smile. "Of course, creamy." That silky, subtle, creamy texture is key to chefs such as Fayad. He is reluctant to drip yogurt into a cheesecloth bag as his ancestors did ("too hot," he pronounces the climate here). Like most local chefs, he buys his supply from a large, commercial dairy. But when he makes fatteh, a traditional Lebanese dish of pita, hummus, lemon and yogurt, or moutabal or tahini or any of the staple dishes from his childhood, creamy is exactly what he is looking for.
Fat-free and fruit-flavoured yogurts are fine if you are watching your weight. But for a true yogurt experience, try a full-cream (three per cent to 10 per cent milk fat) yogurt with live cultures and discover the difference a few more calories can make. Onken (Dr Oetker, Biopot) With its whopping 10 per cent milk fat, this ivory-coloured yogurt promises to impress. Smooth, thick, with a "dolloping texture", according to the container copy, it comes on strong. Too strong, to my taste. Made with whole cow's milk, cream and live cultures, it's a yogurt for those who like a bracing experience and do not mind spending Dh27 for 475g. Al Ain Tucking a spoon into this yogurt is like breaking into a stiff custard. Mixed, the texture turns slightly lumpy and on the tongue this three per cent milk fat yogurt comes up on the sour side. Probably not what you would serve brunch guests atop a fruit salad, but at a mere Dh 1.25 per 400g container and containing live cultures, it is not a yogurt to dismiss. Milco Made in Abu Dhabi, this yogurt is tart and tangy. Though made with milk powder, the fat content still comes in at a respectable 3.2 per cent. The price is healthy, too: Dh1.25. I had a hunch this modest, workaday yogurt would perform well in sauces and soups. Try the cold yogurt soup recipe and see for yourself. Rachel's Organic This Greek-style yogurt with live cultures boasts nine per cent milk fat is thick and a bit lumpy. Extremely tart on the tongue, it left an even more bitter aftertaste. It also left me a little poorer: Rachel's costs Dh25 per 450g. Tough to eat on its own because of the intense flavour, this UK product would work well for baking, adding a punch milder yogurts cannot. Almarai A custardy yogurt that breaks up smoothly with a spoon, this is the mildest of the sample. Made in Saudi Arabia, with 3.1 per cent milk fat, this unassuming, inexpensive yogurt pairs wonderfully with fresh fruit for breakfast, a gentle beginning to the day. Total (Fage) One of the densest yogurts on the market, this is also, spoons down, the tastiest. Made in Athens, Total is authentic Greek yogurt. Thick as whipped cream, this 10 per cent milk fat, live culture yogurt has subtlety, nuance and edge. Yes, it costs Dh18.25 for 170 grams, but it is so worth it.
Yogurt pound cake Adapted from Flo Braker's The Simple Art of Perfect Baking (Chronicle Books, 2003), this rich cake benefits from the moistness and tang of yogurt. Makes one 10-inch tube or bundt cake. 250 grams plain flour 7 ml baking powder 5 ml baking soda 1 ml salt 250 grams unsalted butter, room temperature (extra for buttering pan) 300 grams caster sugar 4 eggs, room temperature 150 ml plain yogurt (at least 3% milk fat), room temperature 150 ml ground, blanched almonds (or almond powder) Zest of one lemon Glaze 50 grams icing sugar 15 ml water 15 ml raspberry jam, strained to remove seeds 8 whole blanched almonds Position oven rack in lower third of the oven. Preheat oven to 190 degrees celsius. Generously grease a 10-inch tube pan or 10-inch bundt pan with butter, then dust with plain flour. Tap out excess and set pan aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; then sift combined dry ingredients into another bowl to more thoroughly combine. Set aside. Crack the eggs into a small bowl and whisk just until whites and yolk are combined. With a hand mixer at medium speed, cream the butter in a large mixing bowl. (If using a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment at the same speed.) Cream until the butter is light coloured and satiny, about 1 minute. Slowly add the caster sugar, until the mixture is light and fluffy, about four minutes. Still at medium speed, add the beaten eggs bit by bit. The mixture may look curdled after each addition, but continue to beat until it becomes silky in texture again. This process should take 2-3 minutes. When the mixture has increased in volume and is fluffy and velvety, stir in the almond powder and lemon zest with a spatula. With the mixer at medium speed, add one third of the flour mixture, blending well. Add half the yogurt, again blending well. Repeat, alternating flour and yogurt, ending with the final addition of flour. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with the spatula. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the sides begin to contract slightly from the pan, the top is golden brown, and a wooden toothpick inserted into the cake's centre comes out completely clean. Place the cake on a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Run a thin knife around the cake's outer edge and around the centre column. Then cover the cake with a cooling rack and invert onto the rack, carefully lifting the pan to remove. Cool the cake completely. The glaze: Measure the icing sugar and sift it into a small mixing bowl. Add the water and seedless raspberry jam and stir vigorously to remove lumps. Using a small pastry brush, glaze entire cake's surface. Toss blanched almonds in remaining glaze and space them out on top of cake. The cake can be frozen for up to two weeks when covered with plastic wrap and aluminium foil.
Cold yogurt soup Easy on time and effort, this simple soup from Elias Fayad, chef at Al Mashwa, makes a cool start to any supper. It is best eaten the day it is made. Serves six. 1 kilogram full-cream, plain yogurt 5 ml salt 2 cloves garlic 250 grams cucumber (3-4) Pinch of dried mint (or 5 ml fresh, finely chopped) 6 ice cubes Pour the yogurt into a medium-sized bowl. Stir in the salt. Mince or crush the garlic and add to the yogurt. Finely dice the cucumber and add to the soup, along with the mint. Stir in six ice cubes and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours for the flavours to blend.
Denise Roig is the author of Butter Cream: A Year in a Montreal Pastry School, coming out soon.