In order to survive in the wild, the first thing man had to do was find something to eat. Until the invention of agriculture, he hunted and eventually learned to domesticate animals. The sheep and the goat were the first, with roots going back to Central Asia. The sheep’s suckling of her young led to the discovery of milk. Fragile in structure, milk begins to change the minute it is exposed to the air. Accelerated by bacteria peculiar to the climate of Central Asia and the Caucasus, fermentation turns the liquid into a solid. This chemical change produces the physical change that the Turks call ‘yoghurt’.
Yoghurt is soft, smooth, and slightly sour in taste, refreshing to the palate as to the brain. More than an invention of man it is a gift produced from nature’s own raw materials. As old as human history, it is perhaps the first example of food production.
Yoghurt remains important today among the time-honored nutritional techniques of Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Anatolian societies.
HEALTHY AND TASTY
The first person to carry out scientific studies on yoghurt was Pasteur’s assistant, the Russian biologist Metchnikoff, who discovered that it was the product of a chemical reaction caused by two bacteria, ‘Streptococcus thermopilus’ and ‘Thermobacterium bulgaricum’. Yoghurt is made at home by adding a little old yoghurt to milk as a culture. According to the Larousse Gastronomique, however, the ancient Turks made their yoghurt by boiling milk and then storing it for 2-3 days in closed containers made of leather or clay. Again from Larousse Gastronomique we learn that yoghurt first arrived in France in the time of Francois I. During the Ottoman period an Istanbul Jewish doctor is known to have used yoghurt to treat this French king’s intestinal complaint and to have returned to Istanbul without divulging the secret formula. Yoghurt is not only rich in vitamin B, protein and calcium, it is also easy to digest. Medically, it is believed to be very useful for promoting development of the flora needed by the intestines. Although yoghurt spread throughout the world, more precisely to the West, thanks to
the First World War, it has still not caught on in western cuisine.
THE WORLD’S FIRST SOUP MIX
Yoghurt is an integral part of everyday life in Anatolia. Under the conditions of nomadic life, the Turks developed yoghurt into a virtual fast food. Techniques for drying yoghurt to a powder, for example, storing it in cloth bags and reconstituting
it with water when needed were passed from nomadic to sedentary culture.
The best of example of this is tarhana, the world’s first soup mix, which was made in Anatolia. Tarhana arose from the need to be able to preserve yoghurt. Tarhana soup is believed to have originated from a process of reducing wheat to flour and mixing it with milk in the form of yoghurt and then drying it to a powder that could be stored for
years. There are an estimated 150 varieties of this soup in Anatolia.
DISHES MADE WITH YOGHURT
Turks use yoghurt in the preparation of hot soups and other dishes. In fact, yoghurt separates when heated. But this can be prevented by mixing it with a little egg white or yolk or a small amount of cornstarch. As well as aiding digestion, the yoghurt used in hot dishes leaves a refreshing taste on the palate, unlike the cream used in the West, which is very filling. Gaziantep specialties like yuvalama, alinazik, siveydiz and garlic soup all testify to the miracle that the addition of yoghurt can work.
‘BURNT YOGHURT OF DENIZLI’
Several varieties of yoghurt are encountered in Anatolia. Among them I would only like to describe the ‘burnt yoghurt’ peculiar to the Denizli region, which has an extraordinary smoky flavor. The producer, Tekin Bey, describes the making of this yoghurt as follows: “Pour some milk into a copper kettle and heat very hot.
To this burnt milk, add the milk that is to be made into yoghurt and boil. When it reaches 41 degrees, the culture will ‘work’. Remove from the heat and wait for the yoghurt to form.” The smoky taste produced by burning the milk is, to my mind, an extraordinary gastronomic invention.