I still remember my first sip of ayran, the salty yogurt drink popular throughout Turkey. It was a beautiful spring day in 2007, and a friend and I were having lunch on the patio of a Turkish restaurant in Menlo Park, Calif. I have a wide-ranging palate, so I ordered the ayran casually, sure that I'd like it. But as the yogurt hit my tongue, I winced, my eyes bulged wide, and I pushed the glass to the far edge of the table. "I can't drink that," I said simply. While I loved the whole sea bass, the lahmacun (charred flatbread topped with ground lamb) and the extra-smoky baba ghanouj, I couldn't brook the drink's unfamiliar salinity.
Oh, but how things change. Today, I love ayran's tang and its unapologetically salty bite. As do so many others: Our collective exposure to the way the rest of world eats yogurt also includes the way the world drinks yogurt. We're moving beyond ultra-thick, milkshake-y, berry-based smoothies to more globally inspired flavors and textures. Some are still sweet, but others paint with a broader palette, folding complex spices, invigorating fizz and, yes, even salt into the mix.
Companies such as Dahlicious Lassi in Leominster, Mass., and Dash of Masala in Austin, maker of Sassy Lassi, bring classic Indian flavors to the booming American yogurt drink market. Dahlicious focuses on Ayurvedic spices popular in Indian cuisine, offering fruit flavors such as mango along with spice-forward choices such as golden turmeric and banana masala, the latter spiked with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and black peppercorn. Does the world really need another peach or vanilla?
Dash of Masala's line of Indian-inspired sippers includes such flavors as celery and rose. A few months ago, the company (whose founder, Jaya Shrivastava, hails from the South Indian city of Chennai) introduced a plain flavor with no added sugar, which echoes a trend in the "cup" yogurt category as well.
You might not think of booze as a lassi add-in, but yogurt and alcohol are partnering up more often these days. Mixologists, who are often the first to go rogue with creative drink ingredients, have been tapping yogurt's tangy, creamy properties for a while, and the trend seems to be holding. In their recently published book "The New Cocktail Hour," food writers (and siblings) André and Tenaya Darlington include a recipe for Flutterby Lassi, an absinthe-and-yogurt cocktail with cucumber, dill and lime. It's an adaptation of the original, created at London restaurant Gymkhana.
Cucumber and dill also feature prominently in Persian cuisine, so it wasn't a huge surprise that San Francisco chef Hoss Zaré uses those ingredients in his take on doogh. Doogh, which Zaré calls "basically a mixture of yogurt and water, especially if the yogurt is left out for a few days and gets a little more sour," is a beverage staple in his native Iran. It always has salt and sometimes has pepper, and although carbonated versions are common throughout Iran (Zaré says kebab houses give diners an option of still or sparkling), fizzy doogh was never popular among Zaré's American customers at his Fly Trap restaurant, which he recently sold to his business partner.
But great chefs are leaders, not followers, prone to coloring both outside and within the lines. One of Zaré's favorite cold Persian yogurt soups uses cucumbers, walnuts, mint, raisins and rose petals. It became the blueprint for his favorite doogh twist. Instead of serving it in a bowl, he says, on special occasions, "I pour it in a big beer glass!" Doogh version 2.0, in other words.
While traditional yogurt drinks such as lassi and doogh are finding wider audiences, perhaps no other cultured dairy drink has won more recent converts or made greater inroads into the U.S. market than kefir. The probiotic yogurt cousin, made with live bacterial cultures and kefir grains (a form of yeast), is earning fresh fans and muscling its way more aggressively onto grocery store shelves.
Hailing from the Caucasus and enjoyed for centuries throughout the world, kefir is prized for its many health benefits. Though it's hardly a new beverage, even here on U.S. shores - Nancy's, the Oregon-based dairy brand made by Springfield Creamery, has been selling it since 1975 - kefir has recently surged in popularity, thanks in part to our better understanding of gut health and the foods and drinks that seem to improve it. While kefir is commonly made from cow's, goat's or sheep's milk, a Southern California company called Desert Farms makes it from camel's milk.
Back to the ayran. Since my first ill-fated sip back in 2007, I've learned to appreciate not just the flavor - that alchemy of salt, water and yogurt - but also the cultural significance of the drink. Turkish food writer and culinary historian Nazli Piskin explains that ayran's three main ingredients, which are "available in each and every kitchen," are especially prized for their ability to cool and refresh during "hot summer days in Anatolia."
"No matter if you are working at a farm at noon or come home late and are in a hurry to prepare a simple but nutritious dinner for the whole family, including the kids, ayran will be a real time saver," she says. In Turkey, Piskin says, it's the perfect accompaniment to borek (savory stuffed-phyllo pastries), pasta, rice, bulgur or even just good bread, in the tradition of the country's shepherds.
Think of it in terms of flexible ratios, changing them to suit your taste and the thickness of your yogurt. Piskin favors a 2-1 ratio of yogurt to water and whisks them to bring forth plenty of foamy bubbles.
Whether you're in Turkey, California, Washington or somewhere entirely different, ayran - like doogh, lassi, kefir or the many iterations of drinkable yogurt popular throughout the world - shows that even when you ditch your spoon, hot weather and cool yogurt still go hand in hand.
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