I still remember my first sip of ayran, the salty yogurt drink popular throughout Turkey. It was a beautiful spring day in 2007, and a friend and I were having lunch on the patio of a Turkish restaurant in Menlo Park, Calif. I have a wide-ranging palate, so I ordered the ayran casually, sure that I'd like it. But as the yogurt hit my tongue, I winced, my eyes bulged wide, and I pushed the glass to the far edge of the table. "I can't drink that," I said simply. While I loved the whole sea bass, the lahmacun (charred flatbread topped with ground lamb) and the extra-smoky baba ghanouj, I couldn't brook the drink's unfamiliar salinity.
Oh, but how things change. Today, I love ayran's tang and its unapologetically salty bite. As do so many others: Our collective exposure to the way the rest of world eats yogurt also includes the way the world drinks yogurt. We're moving beyond ultra-thick, milkshake-y, berry-based smoothies to more globally inspired flavors and textures. Some are still sweet, but others paint with a broader palette, folding complex spices, invigorating fizz and, yes, even salt into the mix.
Companies such as Dahlicious Lassi in Leominster, Mass., and Dash of Masala in Austin, maker of Sassy Lassi, bring classic Indian flavors to the booming American yogurt drink market. Dahlicious focuses on Ayurvedic spices popular in Indian cuisine, offering fruit flavors such as mango along with spice-forward choices such as golden turmeric and banana masala, the latter spiked with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and black peppercorn. Does the world really need another peach or vanilla?
Dash of Masala's line of Indian-inspired sippers includes such flavors as celery and rose. A few months ago, the company (whose founder, Jaya Shrivastava, hails from the South Indian city of Chennai) introduced a plain flavor with no added sugar, which echoes a trend in the "cup" yogurt category as well.
You might not think of booze as a lassi add-in, but yogurt and alcohol are partnering up more often these days. Mixologists, who are often the first to go rogue with creative drink ingredients, have been tapping yogurt's tangy, creamy properties for a while, and the trend seems to be holding. In their recently published book "The New Cocktail Hour," food writers (and siblings) Andre and Tenaya Darlington include a recipe for Flutterby Lassi, an absinthe-and-yogurt cocktail with cucumber, dill and lime. It's an adaptation of the original, created at London restaurant Gymkhana.
Cucumber and dill also feature prominently in Persian cuisine, so it wasn't a huge surprise that San Francisco chef Hoss Zare uses those ingredients in his take on doogh. Doogh, which Zare calls "basically a mixture of yogurt and water, especially if the yogurt is left out for a few days and gets a little more sour," is a beverage staple in his native Iran. It always has salt and sometimes has pepper, and although carbonated versions are common throughout Iran (Zare says kebab houses give diners an option of still or sparkling), fizzy doogh was never popular among Zare's American customers at his Fly Trap restaurant, which he recently sold to his business partner.
But great chefs are leaders, not followers, prone to coloring both outside and within the lines. One of Zare's favorite cold Persian yogurt soups uses cucumbers, walnuts, mint, raisins and rose petals. It became the blueprint for his favorite doogh twist. Instead of serving it in a bowl, he says, on special occasions, "I pour it in a big beer glass!" Doogh version 2.0, in other words.
While traditional yogurt drinks such as lassi and doogh are finding wider audiences, perhaps no other cultured dairy drink has won more recent converts or made greater inroads into the U.S. market than kefir. The probiotic yogurt cousin, made with live bacterial cultures and kefir grains (a form of yeast), is earning fresh fans and muscling its way more aggressively onto grocery store shelves.
Hailing from the Caucasus and enjoyed for centuries throughout the world, kefir is prized for its many health benefits. Though it's hardly a new beverage, even here on U.S. shores - Nancy's, the Oregon-based dairy brand made by Springfield Creamery, has been selling it since 1975 - kefir has recently surged in popularity, thanks in part to our better understanding of gut health and the foods and drinks that seem to improve it. While kefir is commonly made from cow's, goat's or sheep's milk, a Southern California company called Desert Farms makes it from camel's milk.
Back to the ayran. Since my first ill-fated sip back in 2007, I've learned to appreciate not just the flavor - that alchemy of salt, water and yogurt - but also the cultural significance of the drink. Turkish food writer and culinary historian Nazli Piskin explains that ayran's three main ingredients, which are "available in each and every kitchen," are especially prized for their ability to cool and refresh during "hot summer days in Anatolia."
"No matter if you are working at a farm at noon or come home late and are in a hurry to prepare a simple but nutritious dinner for the whole family, including the kids, ayran will be a real time saver," she says. In Turkey, Piskin says, it's the perfect accompaniment to borek (savory stuffed-phyllo pastries), pasta, rice, bulgur or even just good bread, in the tradition of the country's shepherds.
Think of it in terms of flexible ratios, changing them to suit your taste and the thickness of your yogurt. Piskin favors a 2-1 ratio of yogurt to water and whisks them to bring forth plenty of foamy bubbles.
Whether you're in Turkey, California, Washington or somewhere entirely different, ayran - like doogh, lassi, kefir or the many iterations of drinkable yogurt popular throughout the world - shows that even when you ditch your spoon, hot weather and cool yogurt still go hand in hand.
This is a drinkable, refreshing riff on a cold yogurt soup topped with cucumber, nuts, golden raisins and rose petals that's served at the Fly Trap in San Francisco. Make it as salty as you like, and serve it well chilled or over ice.
Inspired by San Francisco chef Hoss Zare, former owner of the Fly Trap.
• 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
• 1/2 cup peeled, diced English (seedless) cucumber
• 1 tablespoon golden raisins
• 4 walnut halves
• 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh dill
• Generous pinch kosher salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• Ice cubes (optional)
• Ice water and/or chilled seltzer, for serving
• Dried mint, for garnish (optional)
• Dried crushed (culinary) rose petals, for garnish (optional)
• Ground sumac, for garnish (optional)
Combine the yogurt, cucumber, raisins, walnuts, dill, salt (to taste) and a grinding of fresh pepper in a blender. Puree until smooth and slightly frothy.
Fill two glasses with ice, if desired. Divide the doogh between them, then top off with the ice water and/or chilled seltzer. If you like, garnish with dried mint, crushed rose petals and/or sumac. Serve right away.
Nutrition | Per serving: 130 calories, 7 g protein, 11 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 125 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar
NAZLI PISKIN'S AYRAN
This simple, creamy drink is Turkey's favorite hot-weather beverage, typically made with salt. According to Nazli Piskin, an Istanbul food writer and culinary historian, the ayran's ratio of water to yogurt depends on the yogurt's thickness and personal preference. If you use Greek yogurt, thin with a bit more water.
From Istanbul food writer and culinary historian Nazli Piskin.
• 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt (may substitute Greek yogurt; see headnote)
• 1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
• 1/2 cup cold water, or as needed
Combine the yogurt and salt, if using, in a deep bowl. Gradually whisk in the water, as needed, until the mixture is foamy on top. Pour into a tall, chilled glass and serve right away.
Nutrition | Per serving: 170 calories, 13 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 105 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar
MATCHA YOGURT COOLER
Fans of green tea ice cream will appreciate matcha's familiar flavor notes - without the typical richness and sugar - in this tangy and invigorating drink.
Those without a high-powered blender should plump the date in hot water for 5 minutes and chop it finely before blending to ensure even distribution.
Find powdered matcha at Japanese markets, specialty grocers and online. Do not substitute loose-leaf or bagged green tea.
From Cheryl Sternman Rule, author of "Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip and Chill the World's Creamiest Food" (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).
• 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
• 1 cup ice
• 1 1/2 teaspoons powdered matcha (see headnote)
• 1 pitted date, chopped (see headnote)
• 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
• Pinch kosher salt
Combine the yogurt, ice, matcha, date, vanilla extract and salt in a blender, preferably an ice-crushing (high-powered) model. Puree until smooth; pour into a tall glass and serve right away.
Nutrition | Per serving: 100 calories, 7 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 125 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar
This digestif is an unexpected, breezy blend of cucumber and dill, a variation on the yogurt drink that's popular in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
It calls for absinthe, but pastis also works well. Muddling the cucumber and dill together releases flavor notes that uplift the absinthe's mintiness and soften its intensity.
Based on a recipe from Gymkhana restaurant in London; excerpted and adapted from "The New Cocktail Hour," by AndrĂ© Darlington and Tenaya Darlington (Running Press, 2016).
• 3 small dill sprigs
• 2 slices peeled English (seedless) cucumber, plus 1 long strip of peel for garnish
• Ice cubes
• 1 ounce absinthe (may substitute pastis)
• 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
• 1/2 ounce simple syrup (see NOTE)
• 1/4 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
Muddle 2 sprigs of the dill and the cucumber slices in a cocktail shaker.
Fill the shaker halfway with ice, then add the absinthe, lime juice, simple syrup and yogurt; seal and shake vigorously for 30 seconds, then double-strain into a large coupe or tumbler.
Roll up the long strip of cucumber peel; secure it, along with the remaining sprig of dill, with a toothpick. Use this to garnish the drink; serve right away.
NOTE: To make a simple syrup, combine 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a low boil, then cool. Transfer to a heatproof container. Once it has cooled to room temperature, cover tightly and refrigerate until chilled through; store indefinitely.
Nutrition | Per serving: 180 calories, 3 g protein, 24 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 25 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 22 g sugar