The Balance of Sour: Persian Yogurt Culture

Tehran skyline photo from Adobe Stock

Louisa Shafia, author of The New Persian Kitchen, and Donia Bijan, a Cordon Bleu–trained chef and former restaurateur in the San Francisco Bay Area and author of the memoir Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen, both painted a rich portrait of yogurt’s place at the Persian table. 

According to Shafia, who is the daughter of a Persian father and an American mother and grew up outside Philadelphia, yogurt is the common denominator of every Persian meal. She remembers it being on the table constantly during her childhood. “Persians don’t have raw green salads,” she said, “but they have yogurt salads,” featuring beets, sautéed shallots, and spinach, among other vegetables. There are no smoothies, but there is doogh, a fizzy, salty yogurt drink often served with kebabs.

Yogurt is also closely aligned with Persian views on health. One major tenet, she explained, is that “cooling” and “warming” foods should not be mixed in a single dish. Since yogurt is a “cooling food” and soft fruits (like berries) are “warming foods,” you won’t find traditional Persian dishes combining yogurt and fruit. Indeed, yogurt is not commonly paired with sweet foods at all. Instead, yogurt is deployed as a souring agent to cut fatty foods because it is believed that its acidic properties “help flush the fat out of your system.”

Unlike Shafia, who learned about her culinary heritage from her father and her own research, Bijan spent her early years in the then-bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis of Tehran. She recalled her uncle teaching her mother how to make yogurt. “I remember bowls of yogurt behind the couch with a blanket on top,” she said of her childhood in prerevolutionary Iran.

Cucumber yogurt soup photo from Adobe Stock

The summer she turned eight, Bijan’s mother turned over soup-making responsibilities to her young daughter. Preparing cucumber-yogurt soups is a memory she clearly still cherishes, even decades later. “I loved that chance,” she remembers, “because I could improvise every time, sometimes with crushed rose petals, or with mint and dill, or I would freeze herbs in an ice tray and use those in the soup.”

Another common dish is ta-chin, Bijan said, in which chicken or lamb is marinated in yogurt and saffron, then combined with a rice-yogurt mixture enriched and stabilized with egg yolks. The dish is baked like a savory cake.

Bijan agreed that yogurt’s role in the country’s cuisine is all about balance, “for the desire to pucker, to have something sour, and to balance the richness of whatever dish it may be.”

Persian rice pie photo from Adobe Stock

More from Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food:

Long celebrated as a versatile ingredient in cuisines across the globe, yogurt has recently emerged as a food of nearly unparalleled growth here in the United States. The time has come for a modern, far-ranging cookbook devoted to its untapped culinary uses. In Yogurt Culture, award-winning food writer Cheryl Sternman Rule presents 115 flavorful recipes, taking yogurt farther than the breakfast table, lunchbox, or gym bag. Rule strips yogurt of its premixed accessories and brings it back to its pure, wholesome essence. In chapters like Flavor, Slurp, Dine, and Lick, she pairs yogurt not just with fruit but with meat, not just with sugar but with salt, not just with herbs but with fragrant spices whose provenance spans the globe. She provides foolproof, step-by-step instructions for how to make yogurt, Greek yogurt, and labneh at home, though all of her recipes can also be prepared with commercial yogurt. Rule explores yogurt from every angle, explaining how to read a label, visiting producers large and small, and gaining entry to the kitchens of cooks from around the world. Deeply researched and peppered with stories, interviews, and full-color photographs, Yogurt Culture offers a fresh, comprehensive take on a beloved food.

Excerpted from Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food© 2015 by Cheryl Sternman Rule. Photography © 2015 by Ellen Silverman. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Published on Jul 9, 2019


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