When I whisk garlic into yogurt, I’m hardly a renegade. After all, the two foods pair frequently in such dishes as Greek tzatziki and Turkish ali nazik kebab, char-grilled eggplant and lamb sauced with garlicky yogurt. And garlic isn’t the only yogurt booster, of course. In Lebanon, labneh – that super-strained, lightly salted version – gets dusted with za’atar and drizzled with olive oil, no sugar bowl in sight. In South Asia, roasted cumin is as common a feature in the region’s raitas as it is in its cooling, savory lassis.
After years of sugaring our yogurt and teaming it not just with sweet fruit but also with actual candy (have you been to a frozen yogurt shop lately?), we Americans are finally waking up to what the rest of the world has known for eons: that yogurt needn’t be sweet to appeal. It can taste salty, or spicy, or garlicky, or just plain sour, like the fermented milk that it is. It can taste, in other words, like yogurt.
Niko Adamopoulos thinks Washingtonians are ready for an unmasked, complex-tasting yogurt made from cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s milk combined. Adamopoulos, who is Greek by birth but was raised in Florida, and his wife, Oana (who hails from Romania), run the Mediterranean Way, a bi-level gourmet shop in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood that sells olive oil, balsamic vinegar and other staple ingredients from small producers in Greece, Italy and elsewhere across that region. In March, the couple began importing fresh Greek yogurt from a fourth-generation yogurt producer in Kastoria, a Byzantine town in northern Greece.
In mid-March, Adamopoulos doled out small samples of the new product for his customers to try. His two-week supply ran out in a day and a half. “Nine out of 10 people who were trying it were buying it, which is unlike any other product we sample in the store,” he said. “I was shocked. I mean, I knew it was good, but it’s been overwhelming.” He has since scaled up his imports to meet the demand.
The Mediterranean Way sells a variety of sweet condiments, including rose petal jam, sour cherry and fig spoon sweets, and imported marmalades, plus a variety of Greek honeys, some infused with wild thyme or heather, and even one with bits of honeycomb. And those all pair beautifully with yogurt, of course.
But Adamopoulos knows that his international clientele, who work nearby at the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank or Washington’s many embassies, are just as likely to eat his yogurt solo or in savory applications. Some might even drizzle it with the olive oil he sells in his shop.
Two miles away at Zaytinya, the Greek and Turkish restaurant run by José Andrés, head chef Michael Costa uses yogurt throughout his menu, whether on mercimek koftesi (red lentil patties with pomegranate and preserved lemon yogurt), pazi cacigi (Swiss chard salad with pistachio and white beet yogurt) or the ultra-delicate and labor-intensive manti, an off-menu item of tiny beef-filled chickpea dumplings sauced with both yogurt and paprika butter. I tasted all three on a recent visit; each dish showcased yogurt’s astonishing adaptability.
And that’s just the Mediterranean, one region among many in the world where yogurt’s role is both crucial and expansive.
In Mongolia, many families hang and strain their yogurt until it hardens into a solid mass. Those solids are then pressed, cut and left to dry in the open air, a process that makes the nutrient-dense food completely portable – crucial for those who lead nomadic lives. Yogurt vodka is also a common celebration drink, especially among men.
In the small East African nation of Eritrea, yogurt features prominently in fata, a spicy, tomato-based bread salad, and ga’at, a kneaded, volcano-shaped porridge filled with spiced butter and often served draped with yogurt.
In many countries, yogurt is offered without any embellishment whatsoever. It’s an elemental component, presented on the table in as straightforward a manner as a salad or a loaf of bread. When Mollie Katzen, the celebrated Berkeley-based cookbook author, lived on a kibbutz in Israel in the late 1960s, she said yogurt was present every time a dairy meal was served. “There were eggs,” she said, “and there was yogurt. It was a basic food group, a basic sustenance. It was real.” Today, Katzen calls plain yogurt “the perfect food.”
My own recent visit to Israel (I was there in 2012) bears that out. Israeli hotels are famed for their sprawling breakfast buffets, and big bowls of plain yogurt – sometimes fluid but often strained into labneh – always feature prominently.
At the charming Pausa Inn, the proprietor laid out a spread teeming with fresh fruit, crisp vegetables, pliable flatbreads and a bowl of yogurt capped with a shimmering pool of bright lemon vinaigrette. Sweeping a pita triangle through that combination was more energizing, more bracing, than the big hit of caffeine I sipped alongside. The sour flavors awakened the palate and didn’t leave me sluggish the way a sugary pastry might have. (Confession: I also enjoy sugary pastries.)
Here in the United States, we’re beginning to follow suit, slowly but surely, at least in major cities. In New York, for example, you’ll find shallot yogurt from a small company called the White Moustache, whose owner has Persian roots, and a lightly salted yogurt (in Original and Tangy flavors) from Sohha Savory Yogurt, whose co-owner hails from Lebanon.
The grocery store dairy aisle might soon reflect that shift as well. According to a 2014 report by market research firm Mintel, “While the majority of leading yogurt flavors are sweet, the spread of savory offerings at foodservice and retail may portend the next shift in the category.” Examples include not only Sohha and the White Moustache but also Dannon’s Oikos Greek Yogurt Dips in French onion, cucumber dill, roasted red pepper and vegetable herb, and Blue Hill Yogurt’s vegetable-flavored varieties such as parsnip and beet. This evolution of the category, the report states, both expands the times of day when consumers turn to yogurt (beyond breakfast, in other words) and attracts potential new buyers.
But don’t worry: Your favorite strawberry, blueberry and other fruit-flavored yogurts won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Of the top 10 yogurts and yogurt drinks launched between 2010 and 2014, seven were fruit flavored, with plain (at No. 3), vanilla (No. 4), and honey (No. 9) filling out the ranks. In other words, writes Mintel in its report, “the old standard flavors” continue to dominate the American market.
Despite our nation’s collective (if slowly abating) sweet tooth, health is a big driver among yogurt consumers. In the report, Mintel food and drink analyst Beth Bloom writes: “The largest percentage of yogurt and yogurt drink users do so for health reasons. Some 44 percent say they use products in the category because they are healthier than other options.”
Whether for its high protein content (with Greek yogurt and Icelandic skyr especially rich sources), considerable calcium or health-promoting probiotics – whose wide-ranging benefits are increasingly well documented but still coupled with perhaps overly fervid marketing – yogurt will continue to dominate the snack aisle as a worthwhile option for those who seek a readily available source of nutrients and energy. Decoupling it from reams of added sugar would seem a logical next step, and one we might finally be inching toward.
That yogurt is finally getting its due for its unparalleled versatility in the savory realm is a welcome development, whether it’s mixed into rice to finish an Indian meal, whisked into dips sprinkled lightly with sumac or napped over fish, meat or vegetables.
I, for one, couldn’t be more pleased.
Cheryl Sternman Rule is the author of “Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) and the founder of Team Yogurt (teamyogurt.com). Find her on Twitter @sternmanrule.