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Yogurts of the world

Ethnic yogurts are smooth, tangy, and sometimes thick enough to cut with a knife.

By Vijaysree VenkatramanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 11, 2008

Mango Delight: A mango and cardamom lassi, or yogurt smoothie, is a popular beverage enjoyed in India and found in most Indian restaurants.

Joanne Ciccarello – staff

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Walking down the dairy section of the supermarket, a yogurt aficionado finds plenty to choose from. Among the multitude of flavored yogurts with varying percentages of fat, some have toppings, others have preserves at the bottom, still others can be sipped from a plastic bottle. Yet all this variety leaves old-world yogurt lovers wanting more.

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Plain yogurt, pure as snow and without additives – that is the prize some immigrants crave. Traditionalists value pristine yogurt for its delicate tanginess, a subtle flavor often masked in commercial varieties of this dairy product. Many ethnic groups have time-tested ways of using this unsweetened and unsalted staple in their cooking.

The name yogurt comes from the Turkish word for milk that has fermented into a tart, semisolid mass. Culinary lore has it that milk – probably from goat or sheep – stored in an animal skin bag, transformed into this ready-to-eat, custard-like product overnight.

In the United States, yogurt, by definition, should have at least two species of bacteria – Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus – in the culture used to ferment milk. Typically, traditional yogurts contain at least half a dozen different friendly bacterial strains. Myriad microbes feast on lactose, the sugar found in milk, and convert it to lactic acid, which makes yogurt slightly tart. "It is true that some yogurts taste more delicious than others," says David Fankhauser, a biology professor at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College. A yogurt lover himself, he once stopped at an island in the Bosporus Strait in Turkey to sample ayran, a refreshing local drink made of yogurt.

Differences in ethnic yogurts

The taste of ethnic yogurts varies slightly even before they are transformed into signature dishes and drinks. This difference in taste is largely due to the diversity of bacterial flora present in any given kind of yogurt, says Patricia Christie, who teaches a class called Kitchen Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Each yogurt has its own characteristic aroma and texture as well.

Middle Eastern countries have two kinds of yogurt – laban and the strained version lebany. "Straining gets rid of the liquid which makes yogurt acidic and this heavier version is more flavorful," says Arpiar Afarian of Kalustyan's, a specialty grocery store in New York. Three decades ago, few in New York had heard of lebany – a yogurt so dense, you can almost cut it with a knife. Olive oil and a dash of fragrant zaatar spices make this yogurt a good dip for pita bread, says Mr. Afarian. Dressed with cucumber and garlic, lebany makes an excellent appetizer. This starter's Greek cousin would be tzatziki.

On the Indian subcontinent, yogurt – referred to as curds – is widely used as a dressing in raithas, a marinade for tandoori meats, and as a base for gravylike kadis. "Low-fat yogurt is a good substitute for heavy cream in vegetable or meat dishes cooked makhani-style – in a rich buttery sauce," says Pushpinder Bhetia of Guru the Caterer in Somerville, Mass.

Smoothielike lassi, served in Indian restaurants worldwide, is yogurt blended with fruits. In villages, a similar welcome beverage of beaten yogurt is stored in cool earthenware pots.

Curd rice, a soothing mixture of rice and creamy yogurt, is like a blessing in the fiercely hot summers of south India. Piquant regional specialties call for sour curds, but originally these dishes were probably just innovations to use up yogurt that had been left on the tropical kitchen counter too long.

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