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A Guide to Yogurt Around the World
Yogurt is a prized dairy product in countries spanning from South Asia to North America. We set out to learn more about how it’s made and used around the globe.
What You Need To Know
Similar to other fermented foods such as vinegar or fish sauce, yogurt likely came about as a happy accident. The prevailing theory is that when fresh milk was being stored or transported, often in animal skins, wild bacteria transformed it into the thicker, tart substance we now recognize as yogurt. While yogurt’s exact origin remains unclear, we know the food dates back to at least 6000 BCE thanks to mentions of its health properties in Indian Ayurvedic texts. The word “yogurt” may have originated from the Turkish word “yoğurmak,” which means to “thicken or curdle.”
Prior to the mid-20th century, yogurt was made at home in some immigrant communities, but it was a rarity on American supermarket shelves. In 1904, Russian microbiologist Ilya Mechnikov (or Elie Metchnikoff) of the Pasteur Institute in Paris shared a theory that “lactic acid bacteria in the gut could help prolong life by combating toxic bacteria,” writes Janet Fletcher in her book Yogurt (2015). This inspired Isaac Carasso, a Greek entrepreneur living in Spain, to make and sell yogurt. His son, Daniel, eventually took over the business, and when he immigrated to the United States in 1941, he brought his business with him, eventually calling it Dannon. Dannon is now one of the largest yogurt manufacturers in the world.
Today, the variety of yogurt available in American supermarkets is awe-inspiring. Between thickness, fat level, flavor, milk type, and more, there are many factors to consider—and nearly every country in which yogurt is a staple has its own distinct take.
To learn more about this cherished cultured dairy product, we tasted 18 options from nine countries (the widest range we could find in the Boston area) in the most basic style: plain whole milk. The yogurts’ flavors ran the gamut from incredibly acidic to mildly tart, and their textures ranged from thin and pourable to thick and luscious. We interviewed chefs, cookbook authors, and yogurt makers to learn everything we could about this fascinating food.
Yogurt Around the World
In most regions outside of the United States, yogurt is used as an ingredient in savory dishes or added as a condiment to any meal throughout the day.
At Sofreh, a Persian restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, chef/owner and author of Sofreh (2023) Nasim Alikhani said it was initially difficult to get her American customers to see yogurt as anything other than a sweet breakfast component. “At home, we always set the table with a bowl of yogurt,” Alikhani said. After attempting to get guests to dip into a side dish of homemade yogurt, Alikhani eventually began adding generous dollops to dishes, coaxing diners to r...
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