It didn’t take much time in Turkish kitchens for me to begin to grasp the importance of yogurt at each step of cooking and every part of the meal. Over the 30-plus years I’ve been travelling to Turkey, I’ve seen yogurt used to thicken sauces and soups; to provide cool contrast to grilled meat and vegetable dishes; and to tame the heat of Turkish chiles. Yogurt sweetens and also adds a sour tang. It even moistens and tenderizes cakes.
“Yogurt appears in the most unusual forms,” Turkish cooking authority Aylin Tan explained to me when I visited Istanbul last year. “Strained, preserved, salted, potted. There are even dried and smoked varieties.” She spoke of the thick, clotted yanik yogurt of Denizli in the southwest, made from sheep’s or goats’ milk and prized for its burnt-caramel flavor, as well as a cooked and salted yogurt from Antakya on the southern coast. To make tarhana, a sort of instant soup base, yogurt is mixed with crushed wheat, then dried. The refreshing drink ayran, a simple mix of yogurt and water (fizzy or still) with salt or sugar, can accompany everything from breakfast to afternoon snacks.
When in Istanbul, it’s worth ferrying across the Bosphorus to the Asian side and the waterfront village of Kanlica, deservedly famous for its yogurt. Also on the Asian side sit the three restaurants of the renowned Turkish chef Musa Dağdeviren, who uses yogurt one way or another in most every dish. Kebabs of lamb, chicken and vegetables come with healthy dollops of yogurt on the side. Creamy stews feature meats marinated in savory yogurt until meltingly tender. Meatballs charred on the grill come in pita sandwiches with plenty of yogurt, crushed red pepper from Urfa or Maraş, and the deep-crimson spice sumac, which contributes an additional tart note. As in many Turkish kitchens, yogurt mixed with mint, dill and garlic makes a sauce for stewed beans, bitter greens or, in springtime, fresh young fava beans in their pods.
At home, I always stock two tubs of yogurt—one container of the regular, looser kind; another of the thicker, strained variety we’ve come to call Greek yogurt here in the States—and I use them all the time. My Italian friends will roll their eyes, but I’ll add a dollop of yogurt to spark up the flavors of a meaty ragù. After spending some time in Turkey, I’m apt to whip up a bowl of çaçik (pronounced dja-DJEEK), the cooling dip of strained yogurt mixed with crushed garlic, chopped cucumbers and either mint or dill—perhaps familiar to you under its Greek name, tzatziki. Or I might slowly stir a cup of regular yogurt into a soup that lacks oomph—tomato soup especially benefits from this.
In the Turkish recipes I’m sharing here, yogurt does more than its share of heavy lifting. It turns a simple soup of potatoes, chickpeas and just a small amount of meat into a substantial main course. A savory yogurt marinade renders lamb shoulder tender enough to cut with a spoon. And a half-cup of plain whole-milk yogurt makes a pistachio cake so delicate and light you’ll easily justify going in for a second slice.