What, if Anything, is Yoghurt?*

Have you ever thought about yoghurt, really? That there might be more than plain and flavoured? That it might be an iconic food in many places and still made in traditional ways?

Two fruit and one plain yoghurt, local production by a farmer in the Morbihan, France, Photo C. Griffin-Kremer

We may do well to use a title borrowed from the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1), who was a master at discerning the slight or great permutations from one living being to another closely related to it, as yoghurt is a very “live” foodstuff of many hues, indeed, involving highly varying production processes, multiple names across many cultures and a wealth of different tastes. It has been the object of a worldwide marketing effort that has impacted the food habits of people who, several generations ago, had hardly, if at all, heard of it. Today, it is a standard in everyday global consumption and produced locally all over the world. Keeping better than fresh milk, it also has the advantage of being more digestible for people with a tendency toward lactose intolerance, often the case in Asia, as opposed to the European area, where fairly recent genetic mutations made it palatable and may well have boosted the attractiveness of cattle cultures, not to mention sheep and goat-herding. The name itself comes to us from Turkey, the bridge that most probably conveyed it to Eastern Europe from its homelands in Asia.

Creative Commons, Wikipedia, Author: Secretlondon, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_yogurt-based_dishes_and_beverages#/media/File:Shrikhand_london_kastoori.jpg

If today, yoghurt is produced globally with lactic acid-inducing bacteria that guide its fermentation, local products may well use specific bacteria typical of a region, but that cannot be scaled up to commercial production. Likewise, local food traditions may depend on milk from cattle, goats, sheep, mares, water buffalo, camels and female yak. As we shall see in our contributors’ articles, yoghurt may be “eaten” or “drunk”, the latter especially when it is used as an ingredient in beverages such as ayran, abdugh, dogh, lassi, mattha, chaach, and more… In such foodstuffs as kashk and quroot or lebne, it is dried and, around the Mediterranean, preserved in olive oil. Yoghurt can be complemented by the addition of multiple pleasures, such as the cucumber and mint in Greek tsatsiki, Indian raita or Iranian mast-o khiyar, although it is usually not thought appropriate to combine it with fish dishes (2), and it has become at times iconic of a particular country, as is skyr in Iceland.

A German journalist enjoying a helping of skyr in Iceland in 1934: By Willem van de Poll – http://proxy.handle.net/10648/ae9e25a8-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67042230

Last, but not least, it is a product dependent on keeping animals that depend on grazing conditions, so on phosphorus availability, not to mention massive fodder supplements for an industrial scale . It spans cultures and practices from isolated mountain shepherding to international brand production and raises the questions of humans’ relations with animals and with the land they need occupy to keep this immense variety of food and drink based on yoghurt alive, well and on your dining table or in your fridge (3).

This thread in Food Cultures was set off by a collaborative effort between the AIMA and The Ritual Year Working Group of the S.I.E.F. (International Society of Ethnology and Folklore) -> https://www.siefhome.org/wg/ry/

See in Davidson: Lactose intolerance, bacteria, lactic acid, kefir, yeasts, (Streptococcus themophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus), Bulgaria, yak, ayran, lassi, kashk, quroot, lebne, buran, skyr, shrikhand.

Cozette Griffin-Kremer, Associate Researcher, CRBC Brest, France


1/ A classic title used by many, including in the article “What, if Anything, is a Zebra” in Stephen Jay Gould’s Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, New York, Norton, 1983 edition, pp. 355-365.

2/ Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. OUP, 1999, “yoghurt”, p. 859, and numerous articles on the foods or drinks mentioned there.

3/ Wikipedia “List of yoghurt-based dishes and beverages” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_yogurt-based_dishes_and_beverages