Yogurt: Medicinal Food on the Homestead

The Homestead Kitchen

By Habeeb Salloum, Ontario, Canada

The ancient Assyrians appreciated yogurt so much that they called it lebeny, meaning “life.” The venerable yogis of India mixed yogurt with honey and called it the “food of the gods.” Cleopatra bathed in this milk product to give herself a clear and tender complexion, and Genghis Khan fed it to his soldiers to give them courage. One of man’s earliest prepared foods, yogurt can claim few equals in the folklore of the medical and culinary arts.

Early in life, I had become familiar with yogurt dishes on our homestead on the western prairies of Canada. From meals and snacks to lunches and all types of dishes containing yogurt, our family’s culinary life seemed to revolve around that milk product. However, during that era of my life it was not my favorite food. That was to come later, when I gained wisdom.

“Not again!” I thought to myself as I angrily opened my lunch bag. Mother had this day, as she had for a whole week, made us children arous bi labana (a type of sandwich made up of a yogurt paste spread generously on paper thin Arab bread, then rolled into a long cylinder shape). How I envied my schoolmates munching on neat white bread sandwiches. As I moved away to eat my lunch in a semi-hidden corner, I childishly resolved that when I grew up there would be no more arous bi labana for me.

Little did I know, in those homesteading days and in fact long thereafter, that the yogurt I once detested is one of the healthiest foods known to mankind. My parents brought with them from Syria a love for this delectable and nutritious dairy product, consumed in the Middle East since the dawn of civilization. Perhaps they did not know its many benefits, but they, as I do now, relished its taste. We ate it almost every day for breakfast and for snacks, and I am now sure that this healthy food with a cultural and medical past was one of the reasons we children were rarely sick during our childhood years.

Modern nutritionists have established that yogurt’s reputation as an almost medicinal food is justified. It has been found that it contains a digestive enzyme which prolongs life. Humans naturally produce this enzyme in their childhood but it becomes deficient as they reach adulthood.

It has also been proven that, besides all the healthful elements found in milk, yogurt contains a teeming load of bacteria — about 100 million per gram. These multiply in the intestines and, by getting rid of the accumulated germs, relieve stomach ulcers, dysentery, and promote excellent digestion. When we children had stomach ailments on the farm, our mother’s remedy was always yogurt. As far as I can remember, it usually worked!

Much more easily digestible than milk, yogurt is ideal for the aged, pregnant women, children, and the sick. In addition, it is believed that regular eaters of this fermented milk tend to have clear skin and find no problem enjoying a good night’s sleep. Also, in a recent study, Japanese researchers have found that eating traditional yogurt reduces the malodorous compounds that cause bad breath.

All types of milk, ranging from reindeer to cow, can be utilized in making yogurt. However, the fat and nutrient values vary depending on whether it is prepared from cream, whole milk, or partly skimmed or skimmed milk, and if it includes additives like fruits or syrups. On the average, 100 grams of regular plain yogurt contains 77 calories and 7.1 g carbohydrates, 5.3 g protein, 3 g fat, 229 mg potassium, 181 mg calcium, 142 mg phosphorus, 75.her5 mg sodium, and vitamins B1, B2, and B12.

For those wishing to cut down on the amount of fat, cholesterol, and calories in their diets, yogurt made from skimmed milk is a godsend. In preparing meals, brands labeled low-fat and low-cholesterol can be substituted for mayonnaise, sour cream, or similar products. This will constitute a tremendous improvement in their diets — at times working wonders.

Besides its nutritious value, yogurt is a marvelously versatile and adaptable food. It adds richness, flavor, and an appetizing aroma to a myriad of dishes. The possibilities of cooking with this tangy, cultured milk are infinite. It blends well with cheese, eggs, grains, most types of meats, fruits, vegetables, and makes an excellent marinade. Delicious when flavored with syrups, nuts, herbs, and spices, it enhances and is enhanced by other foods. The gastronomic repertoire of this so-called “milk of eternal life” is endless.

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YOGURT DIP

Great when served as a snack food with crackers or pita bread.

4 cups plain yogurt

1 teaspoon sumac (can be purchased from Middle Eastern stores)

1/2 teaspoon dry mint

1/4 teaspoon salt

l/8 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

Place yogurt in a cheesecloth bag then tie with a string. Suspend over a receptacle and allow to stand overnight.

Combine remaining ingredients, except oil, in a bowl. Set aside.

Place yogurt on a platter, then spread spice mixture evenly over yogurt. Sprinkle with oil just before serving.

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CUCUMBER IN YOGURT (Khiyar bi Laban )

Yogurt Salad with Cucumbers
Cucumber in Yogurt Salad

Serves 4 to 6

We often had this dish on a hot summer day for lunch, chilled in a pail hung above the water line in our well — our Depression years’ refrigerator.

2 cups plain yogurt

1 medium cucumber (6 to 8 inches), peeled and diced in very small pieces

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

Place all ingredients in a serving bowl then thoroughly combine. Chill then serve.

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BURGHUL AND YOGURT APPETIZER (Kishkeh)

Burghul and Yogurt Appetizer
Burghul and Yogurt Appetizer

Serves about 6

A simple dish favored by both rich and poor, especially in Damascus, kishkeh is delicious and healthy.

1/2 cup medium burghul, soaked for 10 minutes in warm water then drained by squeezing out water through a strainer

1 cup plain yogurt

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon finely crushed dried mint

4 tablespoons finely chopped peeled cucumber

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine all ingredients, except coriander and olive oil, then spread on a platter. Chill, then decorate with coriander and sprinkle with olive oil just before serving.

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YOGURT AND EGGPLANT APPETIZER (Badhanjan Matabal bil Laban)

Serves about 6

Yogurt enhances most dip/appetizers and sauces to which it is added. It gives them a smooth texture and special tang.

1 medium eggplant, about 1 pound

1 cup plain yogurt

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon dried crushed mint

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander or parsley leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil

Place eggplant in an oven, then bake for about an hour or until thoroughly baked. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Peel and place in a food processor, then add remaining ingredients except coriander or parsley and olive oil. Blend into paste, then place on a platter. Decorate with coriander or parsley then sprinkle with the olive oil just before serving.

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YOGURT-POTATO SALAD

Serves about 6

In my view, the use of yogurt in this somewhat different than usual salad gives it its uniqueness.

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1/2 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

3 large potatoes, about 1 pound, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch cubes

1 cup plain yogurt

Heat oil in a saucepan, then sauté onion over medium heat for eight minutes. Stir in garlic, coriander leaves and hot pepper, then sauté for a few more minutes. Add remaining ingredients except yogurt, then barely cover with water. Bring to boil, then cover. Cook over medium/low heat for 30 minutes or until potatoes are done, then stir in yogurt and serve.

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YOGURT SOUP (Labaniyya )

Serves 6

When cooking this Syrian/Lebanese soup, precautions must be taken in order that it does not curdle or separate. This is done by gently stirring in one direction until it comes to a gentle boil.

2 eggs, beaten

3 cups plain yogurt

3 cups cold water

2 tablespoons butter

6 cloves garlic, crushed

1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons dried crushed mint

Place eggs, yogurt, and water in a saucepan then stir until well blended. Place over medium heat then stir gently until mixture comes to boil. Reduce heat to very low.

Melt butter in a frying pan then add garlic, salt, and mint. Sauté over medium heat until garlic turns golden then stir garlic mixture into yogurt sauce. Remove from heat, then serve hot.

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DUMPLINGS IN YOGURT (Sheesh Barak)

Serves about 8

During my youth when the cold winter months rolled around, a steaming hot bowl of Sheesh Barak diffusing its mouth-watering aroma through our kitchen, has left a lasting impression in my culinary world.

Dumplings:

1 pound fresh or frozen dough, thawed

1 pound ground beef or lamb

2 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons pine nuts or slivered almonds

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 medium onions, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

Yogurt sauce:

2 eggs, beaten

3 cups plain yogurt

3 cups cold water

2 tablespoons butter

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons dried crushed mint

Form dough into 3/4-inch balls, then cover with a tea towel and allow to rest for 1 hour.

In the meantime, make a filling by stir-frying meat in butter until light brown, then add the remaining dumpling ingredients and stir-fry for 3 minutes.

Roll out dough balls to make circles 1/8-inch thick. Place 1 level teaspoon filling on each circle, then fold dough over filling and pinch edges to seal. Fold in half again to shape dumpling like a thimble and pinch to close. Place dumplings on a greased tray and lightly brown in a 350°F preheated oven, turning them over once, then set aside.

To make sauce, place eggs and yogurt in a saucepan, then stir until well-blended. Add cold water,  then stir well. Cook over medium heat and gently stir in one direction until mixture comes to boil, then reduce heat to low.

Place butter in a small saucepan and melt then add the garlic, salt, and mint. Stir-fry over medium heat until garlic turns golden, then stir garlic mixture into yogurt sauce. Place dumplings in sauce, then cover and cook for 25 minutes over medium/low heat. Serve piping hot.

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YOGURT CAKE

Eaten alone or utilized as an ingredient in the preparation of other foods, yogurt is enjoyed worldwide by more people than any other dairy product.

1-1/2 cups plain yogurt

1/2 cup butter, melted

1/2 cup whipping cream

4 eggs, beaten

1 cup sugar

2 cups flour

2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup honey

1/2 cup water

3 tablespoons lemon juice

Thoroughly combine yogurt, butter, cream, eggs, and sugar then set aside.

Sift flour, baking powder, and salt into the yogurt mixture then stir to make a batter. Place in a well-greased 8 x 11 inch baking pan and let stand for an hour.

Bake in a 300 degrees F preheated oven for about 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into center of the cake comes out clean.

In the meantime, place honey and water in a pot then bring to boil. Boil for about 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Stir in lemon juice to make a syrup. Remove from heat and set aside.

Remove cake from the oven and allow to cool. Turn over on to a serving platter. Spoon the syrup evenly over the cake and serve warm.

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YOGURT DRINK

In the hot lands of North Africa, the preferred beverage to quench one’s thirst is similar to this yogurt drink.

4 cups plain yogurt

2 cups water

4 tablespoons melted honey

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Freshly chopped mint leaves

Place all ingredients, except mint leaves, in a blender; blend for 1 minute. Chill, and decorate with mint leaves before serving.

Originally published in the September/October 2013 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.

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