Originating among the Bulgar peoples of Central Asia over 4,500 years ago, yoghurt's health-giving properties have long been celebrated. These are, aside from the high levels of calcium, protein and B-group vitamins it contains, down to the presence of particular lactobacillus and streptococcus cultures, believed to discourage the incidence of toxin-producing bacteria in the body. Yoghurt is made when these cultures are set to work in the milk, where they ingest dairy sugars and release lactic acid. The increased acidity causes milk to turn into the soft, smooth, tangy mass we call “yoghurt”, a word with origins in Turkish that means “to blend”.
Depending on where in the world it is consumed, yoghurt can be made from a variety of milk - camel, yak, goat, sheep, water buffalo or cow (most commercially produced yoghurt is made from cow’s milk). Many commercial yoghurts have pectin or gelatine added to make them firmer - when buying yoghurt, look for one that has been naturally set in its pot and that contains no added emulsifiers or thickeners. Greek yoghurt is yoghurt that has been strained of some of its whey to achieve a distinctively thick texture, making it well suited to savoury dips or as a support for honey, syrup or spoon sweets for a quick, healthy dessert.
1. Strained yoghurt
Sometimes you need a very thick yoghurt and this is easily made. Place 750 ml-1 litre (3-4 cups) naturally set yoghurt, or as much as you need, into a muslin-lined sieve. Place the sieve over a bowl and sit in the fridge for 1 hour to overnight. The longer you leave it the more whey drains off and the thicker the yoghurt becomes.
2. Iranian yoghurt soda water (tan)
Whisk 300 ml chilled soda water gradually into 300 ml Greek yoghurt in a bowl. Add a large pinch each of salt and dried mint and more soda if you want it thinner, then serve poured over ice cubes in tall glasses.
3. Mango raita
Perfect as a curry side dish. Heat 1 ½ tbsp ghee over medium, add 1 tsp brown mustard seeds and cook for 1 minute or until they pop. Add 4 curry leaves and 2 sliced red chillies and cook for another 30 seconds. Cool then combine with 1 large peeled mango, finely chopped, 500 ml (2 cups) Greek yoghurt and a large pinch of salt.
4. Radish salad with yoghurt-cinnamon dressing
Combine 300 ml Greek yoghurt, 2 tsp caster sugar, 1 tsp ground cinnamon and 1 clove crushed garlic and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle over 1 bunch finely sliced radishes, 1 finely sliced red onion and a few handfuls of watercress sprigs tossed together in a bowl.
5. Yoghurt, mint and barley soup (spas)
An Armenian classic, this is eaten hot in winter and chilled in summer - the egg prevents the yoghurt curdling. Farro can be used instead of the barley and you can add chopped coriander or parsley at the end for extra herbal zing.
6. Eggs with spiced yoghurt (cilbir)
For this Turkish breakfast speciality, place 4 large, buttered slices of toasted Turkish bread on plates. Top each with pastirma slices and 2 poached eggs. Combine around 800 ml Greek yoghurt with ¾ tsp each ground cumin and pepper. Spoon over the eggs. Meanwhile, melt 75 g butter, add 2 tsp hot paprika, sizzle briefly then drizzle over yoghurt.
7. Rosewater-cardamom yoghurt with peaches
Take 600 ml of (preferably strained) Greek yoghurt. Combine in a bowl with 1½ tsp rosewater, or to taste, and ½ tsp freshly ground cardamom. Divide among four large serving glasses. Top each with sliced, juicy ripe peaches, drizzle generously with honey and sprinkle with chopped pistachio kernels.
8. Chicken baked in yoghurt, kefalotiri and dill
There are many versions of this easy, home-style Greek dish. Some cooks use sheep’s milk yoghurt, so substitute that if you like. If you can’t get kefalotiri (a hard, pungent Greek cheese), pecorino or parmesan make a wholly acceptable alternative.
9. Spiced roast leg of lamb (raan)
This sumptuous Indian dish was originally made to tenderise the tough hind legs of a goat, considered inferior to the tender front limbs. The flavours work brilliantly with lamb, however, and the recipe is easy – don’t be put off by the overnight marination. The leftovers are sensational the next day in sandwiches or salads.
10. Yoghurt-honey creams with sweet tomato compote
Tomatoes take brilliantly to a sweet treatment and here they team perfectly with a simple, honey-sweetened yoghurt dessert. Cook soaked dried apricots in their place if you like, or make a compote from sliced fresh figs or strawberries instead. Add a pinch of powdered saffron to the cream when you heat it, for a dramatic yellow tinge.
Photography by Alan Benson. Styling by Sarah O’Brien. Food preparation by Nick Banbury.