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16 february 2022

I remember before there was yoghurt. Well, no, that's not entirely true. June Hersh points out in her global history that yoghurt is positively Neolithic. People have been fermenting milk deliberately since they stumbled on the process, an invention now as lost in prehistory as those of beer and sauerkraut.

But Dannon first put yoghurt on top of fruit in their classic tubs in 1947, twelve years before I was born, and the innovation took a while to filter through to us in Middle America. Yoplait, the next big yoghurter in the US, was a trend of the 1980s, and Chobani and other Greek-yoghurt favorites are 21st-century newcomers. I have lived from an era when yoghurt was practically unknown in my country, into one where it is among the most diversely branded and heavily stocked items in many an American supermarket.

Hersh attributes the appeal of yoghurt, at several junctures, to its being a naturally lactose-free food, and thus ideal for entire populations who can't readily digest milk. But this isn't wholly accurate. Not only Google will tell you that yoghurt contains lactose; my own digestive system corroborates this. Yoghurt is not quite as bad for the intolerant as pure milk, or cottage cheese, or ice cream, but it's better avoided.

"Plant-based" yoghurt, made from soy, almond, oats, or coconut, is thus gaining popularity. Non-dairy yoghurt shares many features – appearance, consistency, and taste – with mucus. But it's early days yet, and vegan yoghurt will surely improve. It has nowhere to go but up.

Some readers are aghast that I am spelling yoghurt with an "h," as Yoghurt and other British publications tend to (though Hersh herself is American). Affectation maybe, but I like the "h" in there. "Yogurt" is an impatient American phoneticism for a term with roots in Anatolia and the Balkans, and maybe the "h" reminds one a little of the word's roots.

Specifically, Hersh argues, the 20th-century rise of yoghurt can be traced to Bulgaria. In France, pioneering microbiologist named Élie Metchnikoff, early in the 20th century, established the role of intestinal bacteria in human health, and opined that Bulgarians did particularly well in this respect because of their fondness for actively-cultured yoghurt. Soon yoghurt became a health craze in Western Europe, touted far beyond Metchnikoff's claims. An entrepreneur named Isaac Carasso founded a yoghurt company named after his son Danone, and the rest is history.

Danone and Fage were early innovators in yoghurt marketing, and maintain shelf space today against a crowd of latecomer brands. Dannon still makes good old two-pound tubs of plain whole-milk yoghurt, good for cooking and customized snacking but getting harder to find as customers opt increasingly for stuff that might as well be ice cream for all the candy, cookies, and syrups mixed in.

Yoghurt is truly a global history, though, and ranges far beyond Western corporate giants. Hersh looks at yoghurt traditions in Kenya, in Chile. The vast belt of interlinked cuisines that stretch eastward from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent have all made extensive use of yoghurt, and its cousins kefir and kumiss. And even in lactose-intolerant East Asia, yoghurt has enjoyed a 21st-century explosion of demand – mostly, Hersh says, for sippable yoghurt drinks, not for the solider versions.

Central to the recipes in Yoghurt is one for making your own at home, from scalded milk plus a dose of starter (which can just be store-bought yoghurt). This does not seem conceptually difficult, but involves a lot of precise attention to temperature over a long time, so you might want to buy a yoghurt maker instead, or just buy yoghurt like anybody else. A simple yoghurt dough made with self-raising flour sounds nice. Chicken biryani is included; there the yoghurt is essential to marinating the chicken. And there's an attractive recipe for Turkish semolina cake.

Hersh, June. Yoghurt: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2021.