Cultured Crowd

In the world of yogurt, a number of exotic styles are making the scene.

By 
Pamela Parseghian, Contributing Food Writer

Saint Clare’s Peach Mango Yogurt Smoothie.

The ongoing search for new and exciting flavors has led many non-commercial chefs to branch out from what consumers might consider “traditional” yogurt. These chefs are now beginning to experiment with more exotic yogurts, such as Greek-style, Indian or Middle Eastern varieties.

Yogurts from Greece or other locations such as India and most of the Middle East have their own unique characteristics, depending on their point of origin. Most renditions are strained, as they are naturally thicker and richer than yogurts typically available in the U.S.

“I like the international range that yogurt has,” says Palo Alto, Calif.-based Polly Sang, a research and development chef with Compass Group North America. “It is in a lot of Indian, Greek and Mediterranean dishes. Nowadays since Greek yogurt is so widely available, we’re seeing it applied to so many recipes that it traditionally wasn’t. It is [now used as] a replacement for mayonnaise, cream and sour cream.

“Greek yogurt adds such a nice dimension to dishes,” Sang adds. “It has a creamy, tanginess and acidity but without the fat. Plus, you get the benefits of the bacteria.”

To reduce the sourness, Sang recommends adding a small amount of salt or sugar to dishes made with Greek yogurt.

To give yogurt sauces an Asian flair Sang adds ingredients such as soy sauce, green onions and sambal. Soy-flavored yogurt works well as a burger or sandwich topping, she says. Sang also uses yogurt seasoned with cumin and lemon juice to accent Mediterranean dishes. For example, she dresses arugula, lima beans and fresh parsley with the yogurt and places the salad mixture atop her cauliflower pancakes.

For a sweet dish, Sang prepares a fruit compote with Darjeeling tea that is served over yogurt with toasted almonds. Sang recommends using a Greek-style yogurt, but says any variety can be used.

Poised to become popular: Some distributors now carry Desi-style yogurt, made in the style as those yogurts typically found in India. It is different from Greek yogurt because Indians traditionally use non-pasteurized, non-separated milk that includes cream to produce a rich, mild-tasting yogurt. Of course, U.S. laws require pasteurization today.

“Desi-style yogurt is less acidic and a little more milky than Greek yogurt, which has that tang,” says Aatul Jain, executive chef at Saint Clare’s Health System, with locations in Denville and Dover, N.J. “Desi-style yogurt is going to take over. The biggest problem is it’s not yet available in [single-serve] packs.”

A few months ago Jain started making raita, a traditional Indian dish, at the hospitals with a Desi-style yogurt. Traditional yogurt raita is made with cumin, cucumber, fresh cilantro and tomatoes. The dish is used as a dip for flatbreads. The raita is offered once every three weeks, but the hospital staff enjoys it so much that Jain says he’s stopped in the halls and asked when the dish will be on the menu again.

Jain says preparing yogurt in foodservice is too time-consuming and difficult, but he has taught staff and guests in cooking classes how to make it. When preparing yogurt, if the milk and added cultures are moved too much or the temperature is significantly altered, the end result is often curdled milk. Labna, the Arabic-style yogurt cheese that is thick enough to spread, is commonly found in Arabic countries. It is traditionally a full-fat product that can be served as a dip. For example, falafel, a fried chickpea dish, comes with labna on a flatbread at Dubai Media Inc.’s cafeteria.

Seeking healthful choices: In the Austin Independent School District in Texas, Chef Steven Burke layers yogurt among the ingredients he uses for the parfaits the district serves in the secondary schools. However, Burke explains, because younger students prefer combining everything themselves, parfait components are set out in the elementary schools for kids to take. 

Burke also serves yogurt on a vegetarian plate that includes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The chef’s main goal is to cut back on sodium and make dishes more healthful to meet pending government regulations. So Burke is working on using yogurt in place of mayonnaise in the dressings he prepares in house because, he says, mayonnaise has a high sodium content.

But there are challenges with the yogurt-for-mayonnaise substitution, Burke says. For instance, because the dressings are often used in other recipes, when he changes the dressing recipe, Burke must also make changes to any recipes that use that dressing. For example, he uses a spicy ranch dressing on a wrap sandwich, so the wrap recipe will need alterations in addition to the spicy ranch recipe.