Food without full-fat cultured yogurt is simply not acceptable
Fortune favours the bold, and so does yogurt. In our Emirati-Lebanese household, both unofficial national garnishes – hot sauce and yogurt, respectively – were represented, with decorum and pride, at almost every lunch and dinner. I grew up eating basmati rice and stuffed grape leaves under clouds of yogurt, but I used the heaviest hand when applying it to the dish of lentils, rice and caramelised onions known as mujadarra. Spooning yogurt on to hot food was just a built-in reflex; a finishing touch as rooted as a smile.
In a home with four kids, we went through a tonne of yogurt, or laban. Also on daily rotation, but eaten more sparingly and only for breakfast, was labneh, creamy strained yogurt sometimes labelled overseas as “Greek sour cream” or “kefir cheese”. Store-bought labneh has the texture of crème fraîche, but we also kept marinated labneh resembling herb-flecked golf balls submerged in olive oil. This preserved yogurt cheese was often heavily salted, making it safe to store at room temperature. We served all labneh in small saucers, pooled the olive oil generously, and scooped it up with warm bread.
It’s safe to say I didn’t give yogurt much thought before I left home, and had no reason to covet it until I couldn’t get it. Yogurt and salt go hand in hand for me; yogurt and fruit-on-the-bottom do not. Unlike Greeks, Indians, and Arabs, Americans have never warmed to the habit of using yogurt as a condiment for savoury food, much like sour cream is used to the ultimate advantage in Tex-Mex. One thing I figured out after moving to the United States is that many things, including salad dressings and coffee, are expected to taste like dessert. Yogurt was no exception, and in my college dining hall, little pots of it were everywhere. There was “custard style”, which tasted like a melted mess from Mr Whippy, and fat-free, in flavours such as raspberry cheesecake and key lime pie. These yogurts had less tang than tapioca and lacked any discernible sourness. (Fine for granola eaters, but what was a brown girl to ladle over her rice and beans?)
Until recently, finding good plain yogurt in American supermarkets was hard. I’m talking about old-fashioned, full-fat cultured yogurt without added thickening agents or stabilisers. Eventually I discovered a decent brand of Bulgarian cultured yogurt at the health food store to tide me over. The recent acceptance of truly tart yogurt can be credited to one man who revolutionised yogurt consumption in the US, much in the way that Red Mango and Pinkberry have turned people on to frozen yogurt that doesn’t merely strive to mimic ice cream.
Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turk who launched his company, Chobani, a few years ago, took strained, Greek-style yogurt out of the speciality item aisle and shoehorned it in next to Dannon. As Ulukaya told New York Magazine in October 2013, “It’s like, ‘Who are you to tell me where I should put this product?’… Yogurt should not be a speciality item. It should be normal.”
Ulukaya was relentless, grocers backed off, and now Greek yogurt is as much of a staple in American houses as peanut butter. Ulukaya has since opened Chobani Soho, a yogurt bar in New York City, where “yogurt masters” make sweet and savoury sundaes out of ordinary yogurt. They wear evil eye bracelets as part of their uniform, business is brisk, and the olive oil runneth over.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico
Updated: June 25, 2014 04:00 AM