In his classic 1944 cookbook, Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s, Armenian American chef and restaurateur George Mardikian explains step one for making yogurt at home in the United States: “Just open any telephone book and find a name ending with ‘ian.’ Go to that person’s address, knock on the door, and ask the Armenian who opens it for a cup of madzoon [yogurt].”
The fact that you could count on just about any “-ian” to have a batch of yogurt in the fridge—in the 1940s, no less, when many Americans were unfamiliar with the ingredient—explains just how important a food it is in my culture.
One of our most beloved uses for yogurt is in the grain-enriched soup known as tanabour, or spas. (“Tan” is a yogurt drink, and “abour” means “soup”; “spas” comes from the verb “spasarkel,” which means “to serve,” referring to the fact that the dish requires a spoon.) Everyone I serve this soup to is wowed by its silky consistency and savory‑tart flavor, even those unfamiliar with eating yogurt in a hot preparation.
They like it even more once they learn how easily it comes together. First, soften chopped onion in butter along with pinches of dried mint, salt, and pepper. Add korkot (dried or roasted cracked wheat; the traditional choice, though other grains can be used), pour in water or broth (I like the savoriness of chicken broth), and simmer until the korkot is tender and the liquid is velvety with its starch.
Next, whisk in lots of whole-milk yogurt (store‑bought is fine), taking care to prevent the acidic dairy from curdling. Bolster it with a little flour and/or an egg or yolk and gently warm it through. Ladle out steaming portions, and then perk up the neutral tones with green (fresh herbs) and amber (spiced melted butter).
A Granular Approach
Since korkot can be hard to source outside of Armenian markets, my first move was to explore the other grains that are used. Wheat berries retained a crunchy edge despite a long simmer, whereas rice, rolled oats, and bulgur threatened to dissolve completely, giving the soup a monotonous consistency. Pearl barley, however, was a standout. The nutty grains plumped into tender nubs as they simmered, releasing a slew of starch that imparted deep silkiness even before the yogurt was incorporated.
Yogurt in the Armenian Kitchen
On the Armenian table, yogurt is often enjoyed in its pure, unadulterated form. It’s also stirred into a host of dishes, most of which are savory. The thick dairy contributes rich milk fat, gentle acidity, and creaminess—along with plenty of protein—to baked goods, drinks, salads, sauces, and chilled and hot soups.
Speaking of yogurt, some recipes call for a ratio of 1 or 2 cups of the cultured dairy to 6 cups of broth, while others pack the soup with twice as much. It was hard to decide what to do: A generous hand with yogurt produced a soup that was lush but also strikingly tart. And yet, backing off yielded a thin broth.
As I scanned the dairy section of my supermarket one afternoon, I spied a possible fix: Greek yogurt. Sure enough, with its higher concentration of milk solids, a ratio of 1½ cups of Greek yogurt to 6 cups of broth and water struck the right balance of satiny richness and milky tang.
With my tanabour nearly complete, I circled back to the stabilization measures. Flour turned out to be unnecessary given the ample starch donated by the barley, but I loved the extra body that a single egg yolk mixed into the yogurt provided. It was also crucial to temper the yogurt-yolk mixture before adding it to the broth. Finally, I kept the soup well below the curdling threshold of about 205 degrees by warming it to between 180 and 185 degrees—still plenty hot for serving—before adding a final drizzle of Aleppo pepper–stained melted butter and a shower of chopped fresh cilantro.
Meal for a Wolf
Tanabour is not the only Armenian yogurt soup. Some are made even more substantial with add-ins such as lentils or chickpeas, fresh pasta or torn lavash, and stuffed meatballs or braised meat. One—bulked up with lots of lentils and lavash—is called kyalagyosh, which loosely translates as “a meal for a wolf,” a poetic way of explaining just how filling it is.
Inspired by the heartiness of kyalagyosh, I took another classic yogurt soup, madzoon ov kofte—made with meatballs augmented with bulgur, earthy Aleppo pepper, citrusy coriander, and grassy cilantro—and fortified it with chickpeas and small dried pasta shells. It’s a meal fit for wolves and humans alike.