There is a Turkish saying, “Zemheride yoğurt isteyen, cebinde inek taşır”—“The one who wants yogurt in midwinter carries a cow in his pocket.” We’re lucky to be in the heart of summer, as our pockets aren’t big enough for cows. In fact, Istanbul natives know that yogurt is the ideal antidote to the city’s sweltering heat.
With its powerful health properties and addictive taste, yogurt is a fermented friend to rely on: slurp down some cooling yogurt soup, dollop it on the side of bulgur pilav, drizzle it with garlic over crispy mantı, or sip it in the form of salty ayran.
10,000 Years of yogurt
If we ask an average English speaker to name a word of Turkish origin, they might have to consult a dictionary. However, there is a Turkish word that has spread stealthily across Europe and North America, entering every restaurant and breakfast bowl: it is our good friend yogurt. Written yoğurt in modern Turkish (the ğ is silent), yogurt was virtually unknown in Europe until the early 20th century. It took entrepreneur Isaac Carasso to kick off yogurt’s worldwide explosion—moving from Thessaloniki to Barcelona, he founded the Danone dairy company in 1919. In the last century, yogurt has transformed from an exotic medicine into a household staple, but its origins are deep in the distant past. Neolithic nomads in Central Asia – the cultural forefathers of the Turks—likely invented yogurt by transferring bacteria to horse’s milk. Ten thousand years later, this happy accident nurtured a multi-million-dollar industry.
Many Turks need no partner for yogurt, instead digging straight in with a spoon. Connoisseurs will want to visit Kanlıca on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus – this is known by locals and foreigners alike for the best yogurt in the city. Kanlıca yogurt is especially thick and citric, a quality coming from the mixture of cow’s and sheep’s milk. For the full experience, try it with powdered sugar. Asırlık Kanlıca Yoğurdu, Barış Manço Caddesi No.2, Beykoz; T: (0216) 413 59 30
An acquired taste for Westerners, ayran is diluted yogurt with a small amount of salt. Ayran is traditionally whipped to create a foamy head, and it most often accompanies foods such as kebab. As one of Turkey’s natioanl drink, ayran is available at every restaurant in town.
Ideal for summer lunches, ayran aşı is a light soup containing ayran, wheat, chickpeas, and mint. Literally meaning ‘ayran vaccine’, this soup is believed to have great medicinal properties. This claim has yet to be proven, but ayran aşı is certainly a refreshing soup with plenty of vital vitamins. The vegan Zencefil restaurant is known for its recipe. Zencefil, Kurabiye Sokak No. 8, Taksim; T: (0212) 243 82 34
Another gift from Central Asia is mantı – small packets of dough filled with spiced meat. These crisp bundles of beef or lamb are served hot, but their best complement is a covering of cool yogurt with plenty of garlic; head to Aşkana Mantı for the most authentic selection. Aşkana Mantı, Metehan Sokak, Türkel Apt No.1/1, Ulus; T: (0212) 268 74 42
Similar to the Greek tzatziki, cacık is a mezze made with thinned yogurt and cucumber, as well as optional extras of mint, vinegar, dill, garlic, and olive oil. This is best enjoyed with some crusty bread and a glass of ice-cold rakı. Luckily for us, cacık is a Turkish staple, being found at most restaurants in Istanbul.