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For South Asian Cooks, Yogurt Starter Is an Heirloom (nytimes.com)
118 points by mykowebhn 23 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 92 comments

My family came to the US like 20 years ago and I can't remember a day when we didn't have yogurt. Whenever my family goes on a long trip, we have to do two things: get a neighbor to water the houseplants, and get a yogurt culture when we come back. In South India, it's traditionally eaten with rice as the last course of a proper meal. It's the perfect antidote to hot curries and pickles that come in the main part of the meal, so a meal isn't complete without it.

Young children usually start off eating solid food with a mix of rice and yogurt.

In rural areas, families make yogurt with their own cows and buffaloes and might pick a particular one for yogurt because taste varies between milk produced by different animals.

Going to relatives' places you'd notice two differences in their cooking: the way they made their chai (brand of tea, how much sugar, cardamom or not) and the texture and tanginess of their yogurt.

In South India, it's traditionally eaten with rice as the last course of a proper meal. It's the perfect antidote to hot curries and pickles that come in the main part of the meal, so a meal isn't complete without it.

My South Indian friends in grad school would have curd rice. They'd mix sour cream and yogurt as a substitute. They often lamented not being able to get the exact ingredients in South Carolina. Sometimes I make some curd rice up for myself. My Chinese wife looks at me strange when I do.

Going to relatives' places you'd notice two differences in their cooking: the way they made their chai (brand of tea, how much sugar, cardamom or not) and the texture and tanginess of their yogurt.

From what my mom says, the same used to go for Korean families and how fermented vs. fresh and spicy the kim-chee is.

More anecdotal cross-cultural fun stuff... I have some Lebanese friends and noticed that their children seem to start eating labneh (somewhere between thick yoghurt and soft cheese) very early.

Also the Armenian word for cheese is 'paneer'.

People across the world can share a lot in common if they want :)

On related note and I believe posted in HN before, I've always found the Tea/te vs Chai/Cha naming of tea very interesting and this article shows the spread of the word geographically: https://qz.com/1176962/map-how-the-word-tea-spread-over-land...

Paneer is also exact word for home made cheese in Punjabi language. Not a new one.

Both usages are borrowed from the Persian language

Of note is that Persian, Armenian, and Punjabi (along with English) are all a part of the same language family: Indo-European.

The cross-pollination of words between the members of the family always amuses me.

Given the huge geographical spread of IE languages (in Eurasia spanning from Bangladesh to Iceland), the cross-pollination between IE and non-IE languages is even greater than the intra-IE cross-pollination, as is evident from degree to which these languages have diverged and mixed with neighboring language families like Semitic, Caucasian, Dravidian, Uralic, Turkic, Basque, etc.

IE languages do share a unique inherited relationship also, based on their common origin, but the use of the word "paneer" in India isn't due to inheritance, but rather borrowing. The inheritance is most visible in today in words like kinship terms and pronouns.

Given which, i wonder what the root of "paneer" is in Proto-Indo-European, as it doesn't seem very similar to "cheese". I looked it up, and didn't find a good answer. I did find a few other things, though.

Apparently "cheese"/"Käse"/etc is from a word something like "kwat", meaning "to turn sour". I would guess that Russian "kvass" is from the same root, BICBW.

Russian and other Slavonic languages have "syr", from a Proto-Indo-European word cognate with "sour". I have no idea what the difference between syr-sour and kwat-sour is.

The romance "fromage"/"formaggio" is from a root meaning "formed", because southern European cheeses are made in moulds or something (except in Spain and Portugal!). I always assumed this was connected with the fact that southern European cheeses are more likely to be soft than in northern Europe, but that's conjecture. If so, the etymology tells you that soft, formed cheeses came after hard cheeses, and largely displaced them.

Anyway there's more here:


It's not a definitive etymology, but there is this Sanskrit (therefore Indo-Iranian) term which may be related:

payasya पयस्य mfn. (-स्यः-स्या-स्यं) 1 Made from milk, (curds, butter, cheese, &c.)

itself derived from the word "payas" which means "water or milk". It's a possible connection to the "pa" part of the Persian word "paneer", at least.


A lot of words in Hindustani (Hindi/Urdu) and other north Indian languages today are immediately from Persian but indirectly from Arabic as well, which makes things more interesting as it adds historical events (invasions, spread of religion, etc.) into the mix.

FWIW, Armenian used to be classified as a Persian language because its vocabulary is extremely close to Persian languages. Later, modern linguistics understood that (using comparative methods) Armenian is a language isolate within Indo-European family and has no relation to Persian languages (other than Proto-Indo-European). What confused linguists for about a century is that Armenian happened to borrow almost its entire vocabulary from Persian!

Making (and eating!) yogurt is one of the simplest and most satisfying pleasures in the kitchen.

1. Heat milk to 180 degrees (F)

2. Let the milk cool to 108-112 degrees (F)

3. Add starter*

4. Divide into jars and cover with lids

5. Leave your jars someplace warm...in a lightly warmed oven in the winter...on the counter in the summer

I like mine tart...so I'll leave it out for 24 hours. But generally if you leave it overnight, you'll have delicious yogurt in the morning.

*If you don't have access to someone with yogurt to borrow starter, you can get a starter powder in the store. The first generation won't have much flavor. But you can re-use a few spoons of your homemade yogurt as the starter moving forward. Each generation will successively develop great flavor.

If you have an Instant Pot (or maybe another electric pressure cooker), it has a "yogurt" setting that automates steps 1, 2, and 5. It will heat your milk, alert you to when to add the starter, and hold the temperature in the desired range for as long as you want. If you're lazy like me, you can skip the jars and just make the yogurt directly in the stainless steel inner pot.

This has been the main use of our instant pot. We got a big enough version you can put a whole gallon of milk in, then as you said, it's pretty automated after that.

i use a yoghurt machine, which is really no different from a babybottle heater. iaw. something that heats the milk to a consistent temperature and keeps it there.

step 1: put the cold milk in together with the starter. turn on the machine and get yoghurt 12 hours later.

step 2: let it cool down to room temperature.

step 3: put in fridge to cool down further. (i prefer yoghurt cold)

as a starter i use any yoghurt from the store.

different yoghurt starters yield different results.

once it's done i freeze a few spoons full of it for the next batches. an icecube tray or a home popsicle maker works well for that.

i keep several generations frozen so when one generation doesn't work out (i don't like the resulting texture) then i can go back to a previous generation.

Any issues you've encountered or considerations? I've been looking for an excuse to test this in mine but haven't yet.

If you regularly cook savory foods in your Instant Pot, then the O-ring might have picked up the scent/flavor of that food. The first batch of yogurt I made had a faint "taco meat" taste for that reason.

Vinegar, lemon juice, etc. didn't work to get the smell out of the O-ring, so I ended up just buying another, which I use exclusively when making yogurt. Alternatively, you might be able to just take the O-ring off when making yogurt, since you don't actually need it to be sealed, but I haven't tried this.

For a fun variation: Nordic yoghurt cultures work at room temperature. Viili (Finnish) and filmjölk (Swedish) are a bit more kefir like, and (fair warning) not to everyone’s taste. They are a combination of leuconostoc and lactococcus strains.

It might be harder to get a good starter for these in the US. Keeping a yoghurt culture in good health requires commitment too. It’s like having a pet, it needs regular maintenance.

i have been looking into actually making kefir.

a friend of mine did that. unfortunately he switched to making beer which doesn't mix with kefir before i could get his culture.

i found yoghurt rather maintenance free in comparison, especially because it is just the yoghurt, which can be kept fresh in the fridge for a few weeks and frozen for longer. it's also easy to replace by fresh yoghurt from the store. so rather worry free.

kefir culture on the other hand is a separate beast and not the resulting kefir that you consume.

the kefir culture needs to be taken out of the kefir when it's ready and put into fresh milk or it dies.

the culture also grows so you get more of it to give to your friends.

it's rather like tending to an alien animal of sorts.

watch it grow after each iteration. gently rinse it before putting it into fresh milk...

Cool! But I can't help noticing, this kind of gives lie to the OP. It claims (in the title) that starter is an heirloom. But if its changing in two or three cycles then its largely a product of the current biome, and has little or no connection with 'heirloom' versions of itself.

If you are careful you can maintain the starter culture for a long time. Using glass jars makes it relatively easy. You'll need to have 2 jars (at least). Boil the jars (with lids) along with a metal table spoon and let them cool. For a thermophilic culture (high temp), wait until the milk cools down to 50 C (122 F). Open a new container of yogurt and use your table spoon to mix a spoon of yogurt into the milk. Pour the milk into the jars. Seal the jars. Always make sure to have one untouched jar available for seeding the next generation. Always seed with yogurt from a just opened jar -- don't let the jar sit around open.

After the milk in in the jars, stick them in a picnic cooler. Pour in a water bath of 50 C (122 F)water about half way up the sides of the jars. Close the lid and wait 8 hours or so. If you want, you can replace the water after 4 hours, but after fiddling with things I've found that I don't really need to do this. YMMV.

I've kept yogurt cultures this way for years and years with no noticeable drifting. Yogurt sealed this way will keep in the fridge for a surprisingly long time too. While I don't recommend it, I've tasted it after storing in the fridge for more than a year and it was fine. You can do something similar with mesophilic (room temperature) cultures, but you have to be more careful because there are more bacteria around that are happy at 25 C than 50 C.

i used to just take the left over yoghurt from the current batch to make the next one. the result wasn't good.

then i switched to freezing a few spoons full from a fresh batch. any small containers will do.

i got to 25 generations at one point. and the frozen yoghurt kept fresh for prolonged periods of time, like when we went away to travel...

You are correct. This is also a prevalent myth in the bread making world with sourdough starters.

i think it's less of a myth but rather that knowing how to get yeast from scratch is a rather recent discovery, and before that keeping a starter from one generation to the next was probably the only way to make sure you always had some around

Today you can buy yeast anywhere. But many hobbyist bakers take pride in their yeast and keep and maintain them in their fridge like pets. It may not be entirely logical, but I do understand the attraction, it's like having your own little buddy hanging around that helps you cook, personalizing all of your baked goods.

exactly. i think once you are in the process of making it, keeping a starter around is also more convenient than buying a fresh one every time.

it's like why even bother going to the store...

the point was that a myth is something that hasn't been true for ages if it was true ever.

but keeping starters alive was certainly true for a very long time until very recently.

Each chain is different, I don’t think they all evolve the same way. And I think the flavours do settle, or rather each family’s heirloom is one evolutionary pathway.

There’s other examples in cheese (the flavour of a small batch maker) or beer as well, I think.

You don't even need to buy any starter, it is sufficient to buy a pack or bottle of cup of one of those 'active' fermented products - yoghurt, filmjölk, kefir, etc. Use the stuff until you have about 10% left, now add fresh (pasteurised or sterilised, up to you, no need to heat it to some special temperature as long as it is fresh enough), shake it so the two are mixed, warm the pack or bottle a bit (in hot water or in a microwave, you want it to end up somewhere around body temperature) and put it in a warm spot for a day (or longer, or less, your choice). I generally put the pack next to the water heater as that keeps it warm enough but not too hot. Once ready you use it until you have about 10% left, repeat the above cycle, use, etc.

Any plain yogurt will do as long as it has active bacteria. Fage plain yogurt works well.

even some sweetened fruit joghurt will work in a pinch. (it won't result in more sweetened fruit yoghurt though ;-)

I've tried that and the result isn't as good as the ones I can get at the super market. Especially texture wise. In Greece where I live you can get an 1kg jar of yogurt for less than 3 euro. So it's not worth it the time to make your own.

Yeah I imagine making your own yogurt in Greece would be like making your own baguette in France: You can certainly do it, but there's probably someone local who has perfected the art and is making it at scale for less money than you'd spend.

You probably did this, but just in case: If you want thicker texture, you also need to strain it (e.g. through a cheese cloth) after it has set.

Agreed that you probably won't save money making your own yogurt, though. It's only worth it if you like the end result significantly more than what you can get at the store.

That's different from 'real' yoghurt though. In Dutch we call yoghurt.. well, yoghurt, whereas if you strain it through a cloth it loses much of its sourness and becomes a lot thicker. Its then called 'hangop' as its become a different product, but I have no clue what the proper English name would be.

"Real" yogurt is culturally variable. Greek yogurt (or, at least, what's sold in the USA as "Greek yogurt"; I've never been to Greece) is specifically strained for thickening.

We have mild, normal, Greek and Turkish yoghurt in Dutch supermarkets, but no hangop, and it tastes distinctly different from Greek yoghurt. If I had to compare it I'd say it has the consistency of Greek yoghurt but the taste of mild yoghurt. I know I know, that sounds pretty much like Greek yoghurt but as a dairy lover there is enough of a difference to matter :p

Pull this page through DeepL or Google translate if you're curious: https://www.womenshealthmag.com/nl/voeding/feiten-fabels/a23...

In the US we normally call the strained version "Greek yogurt".

You will definitely save money over the very thick (Fage) type yogurts. Those are typically upwards of $1/small cup here in California, which I heard is because Fage strains 4x more than most "Greek" yogurts. So it may cost them a lot more to make the product with the large amount of waste. However, you can also strain that much at home, and given the price of milk, you will certainly come out ahead.

Apparently, this is the type I make. It's much thicker than any Greek yogurt I've ever bought. My batches yield approx. 60oz from a gallon of whole milk. Which is considerably cheaper, and better tasting imo, than store bought.

This is true. Fage needs 4 liters of milk to make 1 kg of yogurt. This is pretty much standard for all Greek type yogurts, at least the ones sold here.

Whole milk is best. Store purchased, live, active culture yogurt (which is indicated on the container) will work as a starter. I place the jars in a large water-filled pot with a sous-vide cooker to maintain a warm even temperature overnight. (I forget the exact temperature I use). In the morning, I place the jars in the fridge and when I come home from work, voilà. I have great homemade yogurt. The consistency can be slightly runny. I've heard of people using emulsifiers to remedy this, but I don't bother.

Some people also strain the result through a couple layers of cheese cloth to make it thicker.

Adding a couple of tablespoons of milk powder to the milk before heating thickens it up very nicely.

Optionally, strain the finished yogurt to thicken it. A thick, spreadable yogurt is great for toast or as a base for dips and sauces.

And don't discard the whey (the drained remains).

It is protein rich and goes very well substituting water in pie dough, buttermilk in pancakes or added to waffles or dough. You can use it also for American biscuits.

You can also water many of your houseplants with it. Not JUST whey, mind, but you can give them whey.

in austria the whey is flavored with fruit and sold as a drink

You can just buy a high quality, plain yogurt for the starter. No need to track down the powder.

We end up using a decent yogurt from the store instead when we run out. We haven't been great at keeping the yogurt train going.

Kefir is really easy, as it works at room temperature.

My next plan is to start making labne. It's expensive here relative to yogurt. :)

kefir takes more maintenance though to keep healthy.

i described the process here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19269804

I also add some non-fat milk powder. It adds some extra protein and slightly thickens the resulting yogurt.

No thanks. Milk is garbage, lactose is garbage, and casein causes cancer [0].

0. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4166373/

The study you linked does not back up your claim.

I haven't yet seen an explanation on whether there's any perceptible advantage to a particularly well-aged starter, or if it's just an emotional connection. Does yogurt made from a 25 year-old starter actually taste better? Does it taste any different from a month-old starter from the same region? Or is it just the idea of having an uninterrupted line of culture going back to one's homeland that makes it enjoyable?

I don't dismiss that there could be something to it--I've been making no-knead bread for about six months now, and I usually leave a little bit of the previous dough to mix in with the new batch, because it gives it a slightly fermented, sourdough-like quality. But I'm only testing no-fermentation versus slight fermentation, so it's not really an apples-to-apples comparison with month-old culture versus decade-old culture. Considering how many other things controlled by bacteria tend to get better with age, I could certainly see it happening: I'd just want to see some hard (or even anecdotal) evidence.

It's not likely to taste better because it's older. It is more likely to yield a more consistent flavor that can't be readily acquired from elsewhere.

Over long periods, this kind of tradition can yield unique flavors in yeasts. You can see the results of this in the many different yeasts used to make beer.

That was sort of what I was trying to figure out--whether it's appreciably better, or if the family eating the same strain of yogurt for 25 years has simply become accustomed to that particular taste.

"Better" is subjective. It's better if you like it better.

Is Blue better than Green? To some: yes, to others: no

It isn't so much about 'better', which is subjective, but it is different. The bacterial populations are slightly different and they would produce different outputs with noticeably different tastes.

Part-Armenian. My relatives told a story that when their grand-parents went to the USA, they soaked some cotton fabric such as handkerchiefs in yoghurt, let it dry, and then just packed it in with other clothes. On arrival they then rehydrated to have their culture.

Finns also did the same with viili, a mesophilic milk ferment.

That's brilliant. I didn't know the bacteria could survive drying and rehydration.

I'm going to guess that you've never baked your own bread, then, because most bread yeast comes in a dry form and requires you to add water to it before adding to your recipe.

On that subject, bake your own bread! It's simple enough to do, and you can get all the ingredients and a bread pan for $20. It's one of the best kinds of science experiment: one where you get a delicious treat at the end. Well worth doing in your lifetime.

> bake your own bread!

It really is incredibly easy to bake your own bread, and everything about it, from the smell, to the texture, to the taste, is just wonderful! I think a common reason people don't is because of the time commitment, but the secret is to break it up into several days, and keep the dough in the fridge/freezer. The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day really changed my perspective on bread baking, and now we always have fresh bread. Even if I'm not eating it (probable gluten sensitivity and mainly low-carb adherent) I enjoy making it for my wife as much as she enjoys eating it!

This recipe is very easy, requiring little special technique, and can be made in a big pot: https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/11376-no-knead-bread

You are right about yeast, but yeast is not bacteria.

Most sourdough starters you buy online are dehydrated:


You can buy dry yeast at every grocery store. Look for it near the flour, baking soda, and other baking goods.

In my local Indian store it is in the same Aisle as Tea, Sugar, Salt, Cooking Oil.

Sounds like the same aisle!

Every one of the replies conflates yeast with bacteria.

I am an Iranian (Technically West Asian) and I can totally relate to this article!

What I find challenging in yogurt making g is to keep the yogurt culture from drifting and in its original state. After a while my culture becomes more acidic and less thick. I think its due to other local bacteria invading my culture, which I try to keep pure by sanitizing anything that comes in contact with it. I find it surprising that it is not an issue for most people in the article.

as i memtioned elsewhere, i found that freezing keeps my starter fresh.

Thanks for the tip, I will try that!

This explains in part why one of the Hari Kondabolu-inspired jibes against Bobby Jindal on Twitter punched above its seeming weight - “Bobby Jindal is so white he actual(ly) has yogurt in his yogurt containers” - ie, he hadn’t eaten it all or used it for starter and wasn’t using the remaining empty containers for storing leftovers like 99.9999% of South Asian Americans I know.

Viz. the following comment on the article - https://nyti.ms/2tI0PCZ#permid=30800352

Those who read Michener's "Centennial" might remember this person in there who carried a sourdough starter on his body on his trek to the Klondike and started some form of business based on it there. I read it just out of primary school (about 40 years ago) so I don't quite remember the details but the practice of keeping the starter for some fermentation process alive over a longer period of time is known and practised all over the world.

That's Centennial? I thought I read that in Alaska

Very much possible that I mixed up the two, I read both around that time...

You can also make yogurt with cashew, coconut, or soy “milk” as well. Try it sometime! I don’t eat dairy and have really come to love homemade soy yogurt or “yofu” :)

that's interesting. i wonder how that tastes compared to milk yoghurt.

Soya yoghurt is definitely more similar to dairy yoghurt than soya milk is to dairy milk. The underlying tastes are only subtly different, in a way a merlot grape wine might be different to a cabernet grape.

This certainly is true, even for me :)

I'm using a culture that was brought into the US even before I was born!

Best way to sustain the culture especially during long trips, is to have friends / family nearby who will do the needful and keep the culture fine (make new yoghurt) while I'm out traveling. I didn't realize this was big outside of south India.

Good to see that people from other countries do it often too.

ps: Why does NYT hesitate to say India/Pakistan, instead of lumping them into one generic "South Asian"? I hesitate to say "South Indian" because that's generalizing 8+ languages, 4+ scripts and a few hundred cultures, cuisines and arts.

Hope the North American media learns to not be lazy ;)

Is NYT actually just saying India/Pakistan and not other South Asian countries? Sri Lanka comes to mind.

I don't understand your ps. Are you saying they should or shouldn't use the term South Asian?

I prefer they don't.

It generalizes the people/region way too much, and selectively.

Good/Positive stories refer to the region in a generalized way, while the negative ones can get really specific, even though it is prevalent in more than one country.

I think the Cooks title is selling it short. This article spurred a huge discussion on my twitter timeline where most families have it going for at least half a century.

The history of the diasporic yogurt cultures would understandably be shorter, and the article too, is written from a diasporic perspective.

Yogurt also apparently is Rich in probiotics! I never ever goto bed without having a cup of Yogurt. Disclaimer I am a South Indian and Yogurt/ buttermilk is THE staple diet for a lot of us. We make use of Buttermilk in a lot of various dishes prominent of which is the Morkozhumbu. You got to eat it to believe it. Ethereal.

Ms. Krishna's is a remarkable story of preserving yogurt cultures across generations. May the yogurt-at-home-makers persevere in their efforts and put to shame the industrial giants of yogurt production.

I don’t even read articles posted on HN anymore; just the comments. That’s where the action is.

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