Growing up with yogurt in rural Sask. in ‘30s

Strained yogurt cheese is the “peanut butter” of the Middle East.  |  Habeeb Salloum photo

Yogurt was a staple this family could not live without, either eaten straight out of the pot or mixed with other ingredients

One certainty of life on the Prairies during the mid 1920s to the 1930s was that we had yogurt almost every day. Whether we ate it straight out of the pot or whether we enjoyed it mixed in with other ingredients, it was one of the few staples that we could not live without.

Every morning one of my many chores before I set off to school was to milk our cow — at times we had more than one — and take the bucket of milk to the house.

Once a week or every two, my mother would take the bucket of milk and heat it over the stove. I would watch her work her magic as she transformed the milk into a pot of yogurt that we would eat the next day.

The summer months were the best to eat fresh yogurt. We had no refrigerator but were able to keep the yogurt chilled in a pail hung above the water line in our well. It seemed that Mother’s supply of yogurt was never-ending.

From a refreshing breakfast of honey swirled into a bowl of yogurt to another favourite of mine, cooked whole-wheat grains mixed with yogurt and a little sugar, and, of course, labna, the all-time, go-to yogurt spread for toast and Syrian bread, yogurt was the way to start the day.

Summertime also meant fababeans in yogurt. This was always a big hit because fababeans grew well in our hand-watered garden.

The winter months were blistering cold in Saskatchewan, but we always had a hot meal on the table to keep us warm and nourished.

One of these dishes was a hot yogurt soup called labaniyya, which we would eat by dipping fresh-home-made Syrian bread into to make it a complete meal. From meals and snacks to lunches and all types of dishes containing yogurt, our family’s culinary life seemed to revolve around this dairy product.

While my schoolmates munched on their white bread sandwiches, my siblings and I would open our lunch pails to find our arous bi labna. These were a type of sandwich with yogurt paste spread generously on paper thin Syrian bread and then rolled into a long cylinder, somewhat looking like today’s sandwich wraps.

We grew up with labna, probably one of the first solid foods given to us as infants, and as we grew, it was always on the table.

However, to my classmates, it was a “foreigner’s thing” and to avoid being pestered by my non-Syrian peers, I chose every day to eat my lunch far from the eyes of those who looked at what I ate as strange.

Yogurt can be made from all types of milk, ranging from sheep to goat, even reindeer to cow. However, the fat and nutrient values vary depending on whether it is prepared from cream, whole or partly skimmed or skimmed milk, and if it includes additives like fruits or syrups.

Yogurt is a marvelously versatile and adaptable food. It adds richness, flavour and an appetizing aroma, especially when mixed with garlic and a variety of herbs, to a myriad of dishes. The possibilities of cooking with this tangy, cultured milk seem infinite. It blends well with cheese, eggs, grains, most types of meats, fruits and vegetables and makes an excellent marinade. Delicious when flavoured 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.

The years went by and from my mother and then from my wife, I continued my near daily dosage of home-made yogurt. The method to make it never changed. When I would see a pot sitting on the kitchen counter wrapped in towels, I knew that the next day there would be a new batch of fresh yogurt.

Yogurt (Laban)

What is unique about the fundamental process of making yogurt is that it is centuries old and until today, is made the same. As long as you can count to 10, you can make yogurt.

You will need a few tablespoons of plain yogurt as the starter.

As well, remember to put aside some yogurt for the next batch you make.

  • 2 quarts milk 1.9 L
  • 4 tbsp. plain yogurt 60 mL

In a saucepan, bring milk to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for three minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a bowl.

Allow to cool to lukewarm temperature. You will know the milk is cool enough if your finger can tolerate the milk for a count of exactly 10. Stir in yogurt, cover, then wrap with a heavy towel and let stand for eight hours in a draft-free area. Refrigerate overnight before serving or using in food preparation.

Strained yogurt cheese (Labna)

Makes two cups.

For Arabs, labna is the “peanut butter” of the Middle East. It is spread on bread, used as a filling for rolled sandwiches, scooped up with Arab bread and even eaten, straight out of the container. No eastern Arab breakfast is complete without it. When spread on a plate it is usually drizzled with a little olive oil.

Another way to serve it is to spread the labna on a dish and sprinkle it with a mixture of one teaspoon sumac, 1/2 teaspoon dried mint, 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1/8 teaspoon black pepper and then drizzle with the oil.

  • 3/4 tsp. salt 4.5 mL
  • 4 c. plain yogurt 1.1 L

In a medium bowl, stir salt into yogurt. Pour yogurt into a fine white muslin or tight-knit cheesecloth bag and tie with a string. Suspend the bag over a bowl so that the water can drip out for two days, or until contents are firm. Remove labna from bag and place in a small bowl. Cover, refrigerate, and use as needed.

Yogurt Soup (Labaniyya)

Serves six.

When cooking this Syrian-Lebanese soup, precautions must be taken so 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 c. plain yogurt 850 mL
  • 3 c. cold water 850 mL
  • 2 tbsp. butter 35 mL
  • 6 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. salt 9 ml
  • 2 tbsp. dried crushed mint 12 mL

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. Saute over medium heat until garlic turns golden then stir garlic mixture into yogurt sauce. Remove from heat, then serve hot.

Chickpea and yogurt platter (Fattat Hummus)

Serves six.

Dishes with the name fatta have bread as the basic ingredient and are distinguished by their use of yogurt as a topping.

  • 2 medium loaves Arab bread, toasted and broken into small pieces
  • 19 oz. can chickpeas, drained 540 g
  • 1 1/2 c. yogurt 425 mL
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 3/4 tsp. salt 4.5 mL
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper 3 mL
  • seeds of 1 pomegranate
  • 2 tbsp. lemon juice 35 mL
  • 1 tbsp. tahini 17.5 mL
  • 2 tbsp. butter 28 g
  • 4 tbsp. pine nuts or slivered almonds 57 g
  • 2 tbsp. finely chopped parsley 28 g

Spread bread evenly on a platter, then spread chickpeas evenly over top and set aside. In a bowl, combine yogurt, garlic, salt, pepper, pomegranate seeds, lemon juice, and tahini, then spread over chickpeas.

In a frying pan on medium-low heat, melt butter and saute pine nuts or almonds until golden. Spoon nuts with their butter over yogurt mixture, decorate with parsley and serve immediately.

Yogurt drink (Aryan)

Aryan is a refreshing yogurt drink that was served occasionally as a dessert beverage when I was a young boy.

  • 4 c. plain yogurt 1.14 L
  • 2 c. water 570 mL
  • 4 tbsp. melted honey 60 mL
  • 1/2 tsp. almond extract
  • chopped fresh mint leaves

Place all ingredients, except mint leaves, in a blender, then blend for one minute.

Chill, then pour into serving glasses and decorate with mint leaves before serving.

Cucumbers in yogurt (Khiyar bi Laban)

Serves four to six.

The hot summer days of Saskatchewan were bearable with a cooling dish of khiyar bi laban. Mother would prepare it early in the day for our lunch, keeping it chilled in a pail she would hang above the water line in our well — our Depression years’ refrigerator.

  • 2 c. plain yogurt 500 mL
  • 1 medium cucumber (6 to 8 inches), peeled, quartered, then finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh mint leaves 12 mL
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 tsp. salt 3 mL

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

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