Turkish yogurt, now a common commodity that can be found in the furthest reaches of the world, is a classic example of a modern food war. Don’t mistake the term “food war” for a “trade war” or confuse it for two foods literally fighting against one another (not that you would, that would be ridiculous). Food war, in this sense, refers to multiple countries or peoples claiming a food, in this case yogurt, as their own. In actuality, yogurt can’t be traced to any particular ethnic group. It is a product of the land and of all the people that lived on that land.
How is Turkish yogurt made?
As most of you probably know, Turkish yogurt is prepared using milk. In the US, cows have become the primary source of this milk, though it can also come from sheep, goat and water buffalo. In fact, milk from sheep and goat has a much higher fat content and more nutritional value; the first yogurt probably came from these animals. Yogurt is created by introducing bacteria to the milk. Though the actual discovery of yogurt is still unclear, it is likely that natural enzymes in animal’s stomachs curdled with milk during the milking process, forming something similar to what we now know as yogurt.
Brief History of Turkish Yogurt
Turkish yogurt was discovered 4,000 years ago by nomadic Turkish peoples in Central Asia. It quickly spread throughout the Middle East, becoming a staple of many of these people’s meals as well as a signature food of the Ottoman diet. Yogurt became popular and important for a few reasons. Firstly, milk spoiled very quickly back in the day, turning bad after only a few hours. Yogurt, in addition to extending the life of milk, was easier to digest because the bacteria assisted in breaking down lactose. It can be said that yogurt was the first probiotic. High in fat, protein, vitamins and calcium, yogurt was considered a sort of miracle food for people throughout the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman Empire and Importance of Yogurt
The Ottoman Empire, an incredibly culturally and ethnically diverse group of people (including, among others, Turks, Greeks, Armenians and Kurds), was key in the introduction of yogurt around much of the western world. In the 16th century Francis the 1st, the King of France, had life-threatening diaria. Suleiman the Magnificent, a friend of Francis’ and the most iconic and legendary of the Ottoman Sultans, sent a doctor to cure him. As the legend goes, the doctor prescribed yogurt for the King and his diarrhea was cured not long thereafter.
19th century and the spread of yogurt
However, it wasn’t until the late 19th-century that yogurt really began to take its hold on the western world. The Ottoman Empire was increasingly weaker during these years and many people were leaving it as a result of its crumbling state: as these people left yogurt was brought with them. During this period one scientist identified the yogurt bacteria and spread knowledge about yogurt health benefits.
20th century and Danone
Yogurt’s popularity as an everyday food emerged later. In 1919, Isaac Carasso, a Jewish doctor, moved from the Ottoman Empire to Barcelona. There, he established a yogurt factory, naming it after his son, Daniel. “Danone,” a diminutive of Daniel in Catalan, would eventually evolve into Danone, now the world’s largest yogurt producer. Meanwhile, Armenian immigrants, escaping the Armenian genocide, introduced yogurt to the United States. However, it gained significant popularity only in the 1940s when Daniel Carasso, Isaac’s son, founded a yogurt plant in New York, bringing a taste of Turkish yogurt to America.
As the many ethnicities of the Ottoman Empire left and settled in other parts of the world, the one word that they had in common was “Turkish yogurt“. From this word the modern, English version “yogurt” came to life.
Etymology of the word ‘yogurt’
Yogurt is one of the few Turkish words that made its way into English. Some others are kiosk, coming from köşk, meaning a pavilion and kayak (coming from kayık, which is a small, narrow boat).
The Turkish word “yoğurt” is derived from the verb “yoğurmak,” which means “to knead” or “to mix thoroughly.” The action implied by “yoğurmak” is quite descriptive of the process involved in making yogurt, where the milk is mixed or churned with a culture of bacteria to initiate the fermentation process. This process thickens the milk and gives it the distinctive texture and flavor of yogurt.
The etymology reflects the traditional method of making yogurt, which involved a hands-on approach of mixing and sometimes even massaging the milk and culture together, akin to kneading dough. This method has been an integral part of Turkish and Middle Eastern culinary practices for centuries.
So, who does Turkish yogurt belong to? Nobody and everybody. And Turkish people. And Romans. And Greeks, and many other Anatolian civilizations. All of these groups and countries are claiming for their own food that, in actuality, is native to the region in general. Yogurt was innovated by nomadic tribesman from Central Asia, spread throughout the Middle East where it was used by all populations, and eventually made its way to Europe and the US. It should be recognized as a symbol of the Ottoman legacy. Each of these groups sharing in something that, for all practical purposes, belonged to all of them.
Oh before we forget: if you wanna try real good Turkish yogurt AND if you happen to be in Istanbul, you may either join The Other Tour or go to Kanlıca yourself and have it there.