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Monday, March 10, 2008

Yoghurt, Ayran, and Kefir: Traditionally Turkish

Last week I gave you a report on Lebneh and Lebanese Cuisine, with an emphasis on the traditional cultured milk drinks of Lebanon.

Here's a similar report from Turkey, care of Sharon Croxford of Today's Zaman.

Yoghurt, or yogurt as it is also spelled, results from the bacterial fermentation of milk. While its origins are unclear, it is likely that the first cultured milks appeared by accident after random fermentation from wild bacteria living on animal hides. The word itself derives from the Turkish "yoğurt" and traditional transliteration spells yoghurt. But not only did the Turks provide the world with the term for the sour, thickened milk, but they were probably also responsible for introducing it to European cuisines. Süleyman the Magnificent is said to have sent his doctor to cure the apparently incurable stomach ailment suffered by Francis I in France. The cure was, of course, yoghurt.

Ayran: the perfect beverage

Ayran is a mixture of yoghurt, water and salt. The thickness may vary across Turkey with those down south preferring something a little firmer. Most commercial manufacturers add approximately 1 percent salt -- about 1 gram for every 100 milliliters of liquid. Unsalted versions are available and can be easily prepared at home. Ayran is the perfect accompaniment to kebabs, döner, lahmacun (very thin, flat-style pizza), gözleme (savory flat, phyllo-style pastry) and some pide (thicker-crust-style pizzas) and börek (savory pastry).

The potential health benefits attributed to the bacteria of yoghurt are related to the traditional, spontaneously fermented milks, not those soured with standard bacteria used in industrial production. Ayran purchased in sealed plastic and foil cups are unlikely to provide the sought-after gastrointestinal assistance; any bacteria present will not survive the harsh internal environment of the human body.

Kefir, another fermented milk product, particular to Turkey and other Central Asian countries, is gaining popularity for the same gastrointestinal reasons. As with yoghurt, the Turkish language has provided the world with the name for this tart, sometimes effervescent and thick liquid. Keyif, the Turkish word for "good feeling" has lent itself to the ever-increasingly popular drink.

Commercially produced kefir can be found in specialty shops, as can the starter culture for home cooks. A small jar of what seems to be a slightly lumpy, milky liquid is all that is needed to start a continuous supply of friendly bacteria and yeasts. Kefir aficionados tell of the superior health benefits of this cultured milk over yoghurt. The variety of bugs work to actively colonize the gut; taking over the space in the mucosal wall that are usually crawling with destructive yeasts and bacteria.

One of the benefits of both ayran and kefir is that the process of fermentation sees milk's natural sugar, lactose, broken down, used as food by the bacteria. This makes digestion of both drinks easier than their predecessor, milk. Their other nutritional benefits come from their abundant minerals; calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and vitamins riboflavin, B12, A, K and D.

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