What's happened to the dairy aisle of our supermarkets? It's as if a lipo machine came through and sucked the fat out of all that yogurt, replacing it with stabilizers, thickeners and artificial sweeteners. It seems nowadays we're more concerned with the bacteria (and how it can reduce our bloated waistlines) in our yogurt than how it actually tastes.
Yogurt is one of the oldest, and most ubiquitous, foods in the history of civilization. It dates back to over 4000 years ago, somewhere in the desert, in a nomad's leather satchel that carried his day's supply of milk. There, a wild culture started to grow, and curdled the milk, transforming it into a tangy and nutritious drink. What a happy accident.
One of the foods I miss most from China is the yogurt. Unlike yogurt in the U.S., the Chinese kind is only subtly sweet and most brands that you'll find in the supermarket are full fat, instead of skim or lowfat. I'm not certain if the better taste is due to a difference in the milk quality (different feed, treatment, processing, etc) or perhaps a difference in the bacterial cultures used. There is just a completely different mouth feel to Chinese yogurt. It's also tangy in a different way, more subtle and rounded, less acidic. There is a deeper, richer milk flavor that lingers much longer on the palate, than the American counterpart that's heavily masked with sugars/sweeteners and artificial flavorings.
If you're not a fan of runny yogurt, like kefir, then you probably wouldn't like the yogurt in China. Due to its more drinkable nature, yogurt is normally drunken through a straw. It is sold in small plastic tubs, half-liter size containers, or plastic pouches (like Capri-Sun) and always comes with a plastic straw for your poking pleasure. I actually got strange looks from people once as I was eating my tub of yogurt with a spoon! During the summer, they're sold from umbrella-ed carts and snackshops by department store entrances in ceramic pots. You're asked to drink it in the vicinity and return the empty pot to the vendor when finished.
To answer the lactose-intolerance question, dairy products in China are becoming more and more popular due to their nutritional benefits. Most lactose intolerant folks can still eat yogurt since a majority of the lactose sugar from the milk is eaten by the bacteria culture present and therefore removed . Regular milk is more popular with the younger generation, but is no where near consumed with the same rapaciousness as in the U.S. In fact, the Chinese often never drink cold milk straight; they usually heat it to get rid of some of the gamey flavors. Drinking warm milk with a piece of white sandwich bread has become quite common at the Chinese breakfast table nowadays. Unfortunately, there is still only one kind of cheese available- the cubed, spreadable kind that comes wrapped in foil. Bleh.
When I was in Beijing last month, I ate no fewer than 2 packages of yogurt a day. There were the familiar flavors- plain (sweetened), strawberry, blueberry, pineapple, peach, and then some not so common ones- sweet cucumber, aloe (very popular), kiwi, mulberry, and coconut, or any thereof in combination. At a mall food court, I once had a yogurt parfait with diced watermelon, mango and strawberry jam! With my yogurt-binging days quickly coming to an end, I knew there was only one thing I could do: bring back a culture to the U.S. and mass-produce my own simulation of Chinese yogurt. And that's exactly what I did. Without going into detail about the packaging, chilling and tranport of my live culture overseas, I'll just go right into the yogurt making process.
Making your own yogurt is simple, and frankly, more economical than buying from the supermarket. The other big advantage is that you know exactly what's going into it, pure and natural ingredients with no additives. For the recipe below, use a starter yogurt that is the most natural you can find. Look for the shortest ingredient list on the back, with no pectin, artificial additives nor thickeners. I've had the greatest success with Liberté (from Canada) and my own personal overseas culture. I've heard that Stonybrook and Brown Cow work well too.
You will need:
1 quart whole milk
3-4 Tbsp sugar or honey (optional)
1 small tub of high quality, plain yogurt
heavy-bottom pot, big enough to contain all the milk
1 large glass jar or several smaller glass jars
plastic or metal spoon (not wooden)
Make sure all the equipment is sanitized before you start. Run the jars through the dishwasher and clean all other equipment with dishsoap and water.
Heat the milk in the pot until it hits a temperature of 180F, no more. Take the pot off the burner and let cool to about 115F. Stir in the sugar/honey and tub of yogurt. Pour into your jar(s) and cap off.
Place the jar(s) into a cooler. Fill a quart size bowl or tupperware container with hot (almost boiling) water and place in the cooler too, some distance away from the jar containing the milk. Close the cooler and let incubate for 8 hours.
The yogurt will be thick and should smell tangy. There will be visible curds at the top of your yogurt; this is the residual whey. You can mix it into the yogurt or skim it off. If there's anything funky growing, or if it smells off, throw out the batch and start anew.
After the yogurt is fully chilled, it's time to dig in. As you stir it, you'll notice that the yogurt has a thinner consistency than commercial types. This is because you've added none of those starchy thickeners. At this point, you can strain it over night for a Greek-style yogurt or just eat it with some fruit and honey as is!
I ate mine with cherries and sliced white peaches mixed in.
The whole milk really makes a world of difference in the taste. Though it wasn't exactly like the yogurt from China that I remembered and was so fond of, in many ways it was better. They say that the experience of travel is constantly measured against and colored by memories of home, but for me the exact opposite is true. My home cooking is oftentimes heavily influenced by what I have seen and tasted from across the world. My little kitchen at home probably has traveled to as many places as I have, at least from a culinary standpoint; acting as witness to my many whims and creations from ideas picked up abroad. Despite my best efforts at recreating dishes from afar, the experience can never fully be recaptured; it's never the same. And so, though my yogurt tasted similar, but not quite exactly the same as to the original, I am still content in knowing it's distinctively my own.