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F - 183: Yoghurt - Neither Greek nor Turkish

Love watching Greek and Turkish people arguing about the origin of “their” yoghurt. They are passionate and argue like football fans. Quite funny since neither side is right. Maybe this is something they can agree on - one day. Yoghurt originates from further East. Some historians claim it was invented in 5’000 BC in Mesopotamia. Others think it originates from Persia. Still others believe that the nomadic people of the Central Asian Steppes discovered it when transporting milk in leather bags.

Greek or Turkish? I let you guess. The answer is at the bottom of this Blog

Seems nobody really knows. There are a couple of facts though we can rely on. The Roman Admiral Pliny the Elder referred to yoghurt when writing that nomadic tribes “thickened milk into a substance with an agreeable acidity” Pliny got killed in 79 AD when saving Pompeiians during the eruption of the Vesuvius. Yogurt consumption by Turkish people is also recorded in the “Diwan Lughat al-Turk”, the first comprehensive Turkish dictionary. It was compiled for the Caliphs of Baghdad in the late 11th century.

For People of the Central Asian Steppes, Milk was vital and played a Central Role in their Lives. This was true for all: Indo-Europeans, Scythians, Huns, Turks and Mongols

Through DNA analysis we know today that the Lactobacillus Delbrueckii subsp. Bulgaricus is found in nature on plant leaves and grain. It is thus likely that yoghurt was discovered when plants accidentally came into contact with milk and curdled it. Based on DNA comparisons between today’s yoghurt bacillus and its ancestors, we can safely assume that the cultivation of yoghurt dates back to between 7’000 and 10’000 BC. It is also probable that over the course of history yoghurt was discovered several times independently.

Lactobacillus removes Calcium from the Casein Molecules which then form long chains

Yoghurt is made by adding Lactobacillus to lightly heated milk which is then set aside for a few hours. Slowly but steadily milk curdles into yogurt. The Lactobacillus removes calcium atoms from the milk’s casein molecules which makes them coagulate into long strains. These long strains make the yoghurt jelly like and give it its slightly acidic taste.

Everybody can make fresh Yoghurt - in Greece and Turkey it is mostly home made

The discovery of yoghurt is definitely connected to men’s transition from hunting to herding and farming. The transition happened around the 10th - 12th millennium BC, when people discovered that such activities could increase their food production many times. However, producing surplus calories is useful only if these calories can be stored for later consumption. Cereals can be preserved as grain, flour or hard bread. Milk cannot be stored. As we know, it turns sour. But once transformed into yoghurt or cheese, it becomes storable. Milk and yoghurt have almost the same nutritional value – what an amazingly efficient transformation!

At one point, people on the Asian Steppes also discovered the health benefit of yoghurt. Yoghurt makes you throw up if your meat is rotten or your veggies poisonous. The spoilt food does not stay in your system. Yoghurt purges! These medical properties were the reason why yoghurt was introduced to Europe Kings in the late Renaissance. Yoghurt like sugar was a medical treatment before it was consumed as food.

Returning to the Middle East, yoghurt was definitely a dish of the Seljuk Turks. Recruited as soldiers for the Caliphs in the 10th century, they became the de-facto rulers a good 100 years later. They brought yoghurt to Anatolia. Later it became an integrated part of the Ottoman cuisine and was served as sweet or savory dish. The ideal way to preserve milk became a tradition on its own and diversified into many different recipes.

Kale with Chunks of Meat, Chick Peas in Yogurt Sauce with Mint and Pepper Flakes

Whether yoghurt was eaten in Greece before the Ottoman cuisine arrived in the 14th century, I could not find out. But the dishes are so similar that I have my doubts. Today, we find yoghurt on the menu of both Greek and Turkish restaurants. Sometimes served with honey and fresh fruit, sometimes with garlic and green vegetables. We all know Tzatzikis which is Cacik in Turkish. Are you still surprised that it is the same word?

Looks like Tzatzikis and is Tzatsikis

The sweet and fruit flavoured version of yoghurt we find in today’s supermarkets is a recent variation. The integrated cold chain made yoghurt available to modern consumers. The original was too acidic for most Americans, thus got sweetened. The global yoghurt market amounts today to USD 70 bn and western people eat on average 6 kg of yoghurt per year. Sadly, it also lost its original taste. Zero fat yoghurt rich in sugars and artificial flavours is a parody of the true yoghurt - am not even sure whether it is healthy. Travel to Turkey or Greece and eat the real thing. You won't be buying yoghurt in the supermarket any more. I don't.

Fresh Yoghurt with Honey and Figs - It is also delicious with Walnuts!

I hope that one day the rivalry between Turkish and Greek people on yoghurt will drop to the level of cheeky rivalry that exists between Zurich and Basel. We tease each other with tribal jokes but it does not go any further. Switzerland has become a prosperous nation by learning that diversity is complementary. Yoghurt is the common heritage of both Turks and Greeks. Maybe it brings them together again - one day.

The Yoghurt in the first picture is from a Turkish Restaurant in Istanbul

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