Expat Foodie: The Joy of Rotten Milk

by missfootloose on June 23, 2012 · 22 comments

in Expat foodie, Food, Palestine

Food shopping in foreign countries can be fun, mystifying, frustrating and dangerous. Just look what I found in a grocery store in Armenia one day. I kid you not. (Look at the bottom of the label.)

Scary pickle

However, what follows here is a story of a culinary mystery I encountered in Palestine, where my mate and I lived for a couple of years, and it’s not about finding a deadly pickle, but about looking for milk. Strange as it may seem, finding milk in the land of milk and honey is not always easy. Here goes the story:

Miss Footloose’s Curds and Whey

One day my prince and I discover a grocery store we’ve not seen before on the Jerusalem road just outside of Ramallah. You never know what treasures are hidden in the various shops around town, and we need milk anyway, so we go in to reconnoiter. We find nothing very exciting, so I search the dairy case for milk. I see nothing that looks like milk.

When you move to the Middle East and you don’t have a clue about the Arabic language, you’re in for an adventure. Actually, many adventures. One of them is conquering the tricks of buying packaged food and processed food. You can’t always tell what’s in the cans and jars and plastic tubs. Read the labels, you say? Sure, you try it.

The dairy case, for one, is mind boggling. There’s a plethora of small tubs and cartons showing serene cows or green alpine meadows or rustic Swiss cottages none of which reveals the exact characteristics of the contents. The writing only offers blocky Hebrew letters or curlicue Arabic ones. Cottage cheese? Yogurt? Cream cheese? Ricotta? Sour cream?

I’ve discovered milk comes in plastic bottles with different colored foil tops indicating the various percentages of butterfat, but I do not see the now-familiar bottles with their colored foil tops in this store. I see half-gallon plastic jugs, or rather 2-liter jugs containing a white substance. The white-and-green label sports a picture of some sort of bovine. Not any dairy cow I’m familiar with (this one has elegantly curved horns) but a cow none the less. It must be milk.

The next morning my spouse takes the jug out of the fridge with the intention of pouring some milk on his cereal only to find that the content is thick and won’t pour out of the opening.

I make a face. Yuk, the milk must have gone bad. I take a small spoon and insert it through the neck of the jug. I scoop some of the white stuff out, sniff it, then taste it carefully lest I poison myself. (Let it not be said I don’t take risks in my exotic expat life.) It’s sour and disgusting. Rotten milk. Gross!

“I’ll take it back and ask,” my man says, not convinced it’s bad milk. Could it be yogurt?

“It’s nasty,” I say. “Besides, why put yogurt in a plastic jug with a smallish opening meant for pouring liquids?” I ask, trying for logic, but an hour later we know the verdict:  We, a household of two, now own 2 liters of plain yogurt, somewhere in the vicinity of eight and a half cups, this in addition to the two cups I already have in the fridge. I take a fortifying breath, insert another small spoon and have another taste.

It is amazing the tricks the brain can play even with a normal, intelligent person. The thick substance has magically morphed into yogurt. And good yogurt, too! It’s delicious!

“Well,” says my man, ”I guess we’ll eat it.”

We start by eating it for breakfast with fruit and cereal. But 10 cups of yogurt is a lot, dear readers. So I set out on a quest to find recipes that use yogurt. I make a sweet avocado lassi which I remember from my Indonesian sojourn. It is delicious, but you can only drink so much of the stuff. I make an Egyptian semolina cake and freeze most of it.

Semolina cake

I find recipes for Greek tzatziki sauce, Persian beet-and-yogurt dip, and a Swiss muesli recipe in which oats are soaked in yogurt overnight. Most recipes using any considerable amount of yogurt render food quantities large enough to feed the hordes of Ghengis Khan. So the only solution is to throw a party.

I don’t ask anybody if they like yogurt.

For a starter I make the Persian beet dip, using two cups of yogurt. It is a very dramatic magenta, not usually a color you associate with food, but everybody loves it (recipe at end of post).

Borani-e-Labu

We barbecue a leg of lamb Greek style, serve it with a tzatziki, yogurt sauce. Afterward we eat a lemon-yogurt mousse, a recipe I have created myself. It all goes. Everybody eats with gusto and they all go home awash in lactobacillus acidophilus, bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus.  As you can tell, I did my research.

And no, nobody dies. Not even from the streptococcus thermophilus.

I have one half cup of yogurt left, and I know what to do with it. I’ve found a Turkish recipe I just have to try. You mix yogurt with garlic and salt, spread it out on two plates, poach some eggs, put them on top of the yogurt and pour melted butter mixed with red pepper and paprika over it all. It’s an appetizer or lunch dish, but to me it looks like breakfast, garlic notwithstanding.

I fix this the next morning. It’s the weekend and my mate is home, so no offending co-workers with garlic breath. He looks at his plate and glances up at me. “I expect this is yogurt I’m seeing here?”

“Of course,” I say.

He begins to eat. He is a brave man, but then in his travels around the world he has eaten stranger things than the ones I’ve been feeding him the last ten days. But now I’m done. It’s been an international yogurt fest, but, yummy as it all was, I really, really don’t want to look at yogurt again for a while. A long while.

“This is very interesting,” he says, spooning up the garlicky yogurt eggs.

“I have something to tell you,” I say solemnly.

He glances up from his plate.  “Yes?”

“All the yogurt is gone.”

He smiles reassuringly. “Don’t worry,” he says.  “I’ll pick up some more when I get the newspaper.”

***

Borani-e-Labu
Beet and Yogurt Dip

Your guests will be intrigued, possibly terrified, by the striking magenta color of this dip. Many variations are found in the Middle East.  Borani-e-Labu is the Persian name for it and in Turkey it is known as Yogurtlu Pancar. The photo above was taken by me the day before publishing this post. I had beets, I had yogurt, and I remembered this story.

1 lb (1/2 kg). young summer beets
2 cups (0.5 L) Greek yogurt, or drained whole milk yogurt (or labneh)
2 cloves garlic, pressed
2 ½  tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
Chopped parsley or mint for garnish

1.    Trim the leaves from the beets, leaving an inch (2.5 cm) or so of the stalks to keep the beets from “bleeding.” Put them whole in a sauce pan, cover with water and bring to a boil.  Lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes or until the beets are firm-tender.  Cool.

2.    Slip the skins off the beets and cut them in small dice, or grate coarsely.

3.    Mix the beets into the yogurt, adding. garlic, salt and lemon juice.  Garnish with chopped parsley or mint.

4.    Serve with pita bread.  Serves an adventurous crowd of 8 or more.

VARIATIONS: You may add other seasonings such as 2 tablespoons finely diced onion, 2 tablespoons olive oil, or 2 tablespoons tahini.  Instead of finely dicing the beetroot, slice them, place them on top of the yogurt mixed with garlic, salt and lemon juice and serve the dish as a salad or light lunch dish.

* * *

Have you ever had a challenge buying food in a foreign country? Sure you have!

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

naomi June 23, 2012 at 1:44 am

This one was great!!
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Heather June 23, 2012 at 10:35 am

What a great way to make lemonaide from lemons! I had a similar experience in Okinawa Japan. None of the packaging had pictures of the contents and I could not read the labels. It was difficult to say the least but since it was a short trip I mostly ate in restaurants. I love Japanese food so in the end it it all worked out. In the UK now and the other day I used an online delivery service for groceries. We wanted to make our favorite taco seasoning but I was having trouble finding certain spices for instance garlic powder is called garlic granuels and I still cannot seem to find onion powder as it not onion granuels. Made the tacos anyway and it was fine. Funny how even though the language is the same there are still so many little differences!

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missfootloose June 23, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Yes, finding ingredients can be an adventure, even if yoy=u think you know the language! And of course items may differ from place to place. I’ve had all kinds of trouble with American English not being the same as British English. I once spent hours running around in Nairobi looking for “cookie sheets” and half a dozen Indian merchants selling all sorts of kitchen ware told me they didn’t have them, until I spotted them on a shelf. In British English you call them “biscuit tins.” Ah, the joys of travel!

Glad you got your tacos anyway. You can always use fresh garlic (tastes better, trust me!)

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Pat June 23, 2012 at 3:19 pm

I never knew what yogurt was until I moved to France in 1980 and the “laitage” became part of the after the meal ritual. Whenever I have visitors from the States, they are amazed by the dairy product aisle of the grocery store and the choices available. They also swear that yogurt tastes better in Europe even when produced by the same company.

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missfootloose June 23, 2012 at 3:38 pm

I love the variety of dairy products in Western Europe! And the tastes are different than in the US. The same company may make the yogurt, but they use local milk, and the taste of the milk depends on what the cows are fed, etc., etc. and I’m sure companies adapt their “recipes” depending on local preferences.

Right now that I live in Moldova, I drink kefir almost every day. It’s a staple here, while plain white yogurt is not. Go figure 😉 People also use a lot of sour cream here, but not regular thick/whipping cream. You can buy it, but it’s imported from Germany or Italy.

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sine June 27, 2012 at 7:28 am

Yes, yogurt is so much better in Europe than the US. It’s also better here in South Africa. In fact, maybe we should just say that the US has the worst yogurt in the world. It is SO fat free that you might as well not bother. Here it’s so creamy it’s a pure joy to eat. I guess the milk might in fact have something to do with it as well, but part of it also is the American obsession of taking fat out of everything. (not that it seems to make a difference – sorry, couldn’t help myself making that dig:-)
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missfootloose June 27, 2012 at 10:48 am

I’ve never liked the fat free or low-fat varieties of dairy foods. I’m a bit of a purist and don’t like foods that have been factory bred or “improved.” I keep thinking that the human body is meant to digest “natural” foods that have all their natural components intact and interacting. Then again, what do I know? I’m not a scientist. Fortunately I’ve never had a weight problem and just eat in moderation all the lovely food that Mother nature supplies us with. And then I sin once in a while, naturellement.

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maggie myklebust June 23, 2012 at 6:48 pm

Oh yes, the challenges of shopping in a foreign land….
You did good making use of the yogurt and the food looks yummy too.
Great post!

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theartichokeadventures June 24, 2012 at 9:42 am

This reminded me that as a 14 yr old I once had to eat some sort milky curd at a Sikh wedding in Singapore.It was at room temperature and a long way from my idea of nice food.Being polite in those situations only piles on the pain. Asked if I liked it,I of course said yes in order not to offend and the hosts then insisted that I have more!! oh the suffering!!
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missfootloose June 24, 2012 at 10:15 am

You poor guy! I’ve had my adventures of having to eat food that was really unappetizing and it’s not a happy adventure. Did you ever figure out what that white stuff was? Could have been clabbered milk.

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Chubby Chatterbox June 24, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Pickled hemlock? I wonder if Socrates would have liked this. By the way, I just posted on Cappadocia in Turkey, a place that, if you haven’t already visited, you might find interesting.

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edj June 25, 2012 at 8:04 am

Did you eat the pickled hemlock? Are you ok? I’m dying to know!
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missfootloose June 27, 2012 at 12:41 pm

No, I didn’t eat the pickled hemlock. 😉 Not because I was afraid, just because everything and its mother gets pickled in Armenia, and mostly it doesn’t taste like much. Interestingly, I found another jar of pickles, a different kind, which was also called Pickled Hemlock. The translator for the labels must have consumed too much homemade mulberry vodka.

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sine June 25, 2012 at 5:21 pm

You never cease to entertain me with your posts, whatever they may be about. Love the yogurt story. And yes, I’ve had my share of them. It’s the oddest things you often have trouble with in foreign lands. Here in South Africa, for some reason, it has been chocolate chips for me. I’ve written about it here, if anybody cares http://www.joburgexpat.com/2011/09/chocolate-chip-in-hiding.html. Plus recipe at the end:-). Another thing I always have trouble with are different cuts of meat, where each country (even English speaking) insists on calling it something different. I’ve had many conversations with butchers to try and narrow down what kind of roast I want…
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missfootloose June 25, 2012 at 10:11 pm

Oh yes, the problem of the names and types of meat cuts in different countries! You can find charts if you google, for American cuts, English cuts, with pictures and explanations and so on. Then you can take them to the butcher and point at what you want. Glad you were entertained by yogurt, imagine that 😉

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Welshcakes Limoncello June 25, 2012 at 10:48 pm

Had a good laugh at the jar label and am really envious of your inventiveness with the yogurt!
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Marie from Rock The Kasbah June 26, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Hahaha! My favorite is when milk (and water) come in bags. What the hell are you supposed to do? Consume it all in one sitting?

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missfootloose June 26, 2012 at 10:02 pm

No, you pour it into a pitcher and keep that in the fridge. Nuisance, but hey.

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Turkey's For Life June 28, 2012 at 10:49 am

Foreign visitors always buy ayran here (yoghurt mixed with water and salt) assuming it’s milk. I love watching their faces as they take a gulp of their morning tea. Cruel, I know. Love the beet and yoghurt dip and the egg dish you made. That’s called çılbır, here in Turkey. 🙂
Julia
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Karien June 28, 2012 at 10:00 pm

Nice story! Don’t you miss karnemelk? I sure do!
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Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living June 29, 2012 at 4:30 pm

I am envious now as I’ve started becoming less adventurous in my cooking new recipes. I agree with Sine above, that American yoghurt is not as good as European. A new trend has started though: Fage, pronounced Fa-yeh, the Greek yoghurt. My husband loves it on top of raw broccoli and salsa.
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Elal Jane Lasola July 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm

What you’ve made looks super good. I wish I could do the same 🙂

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