Yogurt: The Levant’s ‘Elixir of Life’

Delicious and Tart, Yogurt Stories and Recipes
Yogurt: The Levant’s ‘Elixir of Life’

Yogurt: The Levant’s ‘Elixir of Life’

With ancient origins stretching back to Neolithic times, yogurt was first introduced to the Europeans by the Ottomans in the 16th century. The story goes that French emperor Francois I was suffering from a chronic intestinal infection and appealed to his ally, Süleyman the Magnificent, for help. Süleyman dispatched a Jewish physician on a ship from Constantinople with the magic cure – some yogurt made from goat’s milk. After recovering from ingesting the tangy concoction, Francois I went on to spread the health benefits of what he dubbed “the elixir of life” with the rest of Europe. Traced back to these times, the etymology of the English word yogurt, comes from the Turkish word yogurmak, meaning to curdle, condense, thicken. 

Today, in the Western world, yogurt is primarily consumed as a breakfast dish, a snack, or a dessert. But across the Middle East and the Levant, yogurt is a staple, appearing in soups, salads, dips, dressings, and meze. Rich with nutrients that include calcium, magnesium, probiotics, and protein, the Turks, Greeks and Bulgarians are known to pour yogurt over everything. 

Both deliciously tart and refreshingly light, yogurt is incredibly versatile and the perfect base for many summer dishes.


Turkish cacik with mint.

Turkish cacik with mint.


There are many versions of this cucumber-yogurt dish across the region. The Iranians add rose petals and walnut; the Lebanese use labneh as their base and add a touch of sumac; while the Greek version Tzatziki often calls for fresh dill.

For a special touch, LEVANT recommends both shredding and chopping your cucumbers for a mixture of textures.


Serves 4

6 small/medium persian cucumbers or 2 large cucumbers

500 grams (18 ounces) strained yogurt, either Greek yogurt or labneh

1-2 garlic cloves, crushed or minced

Leaves from 3 mint sprigs, finely chopped or julienned

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon salt, more or less for taste

½ teaspoon pepper


  1. Take 4 persian cucumbers, half them lengthwise, and finely chop. If using large cucumbers, quarter 1 cucumber and then chop. 
  2. Over a strainer, shred or grate the remaining 2 cucumbers. Sprinkle with salt and let sit for 15 minutes. If using large cucumbers, shred or grate the remaining cucumber. After 15 minutes, squeeze the shredded cucumber to release the liquids and set aside. 
  3. Crush or mince 1 garlic clove. (Add a second if you like your cacik garlicky like Levant does).
  4. In a medium size bowl, combine the yogurt, the chopped cucumbers, the shredded cucumber, and the garlic. Add the olive oil and mix. Sprinkle the salt and pepper.
  5. Keep cold, and right before serving, sprinkle the mint leaves as a garnish. 

Serve with grilled chicken, oven roasted salmon, or as a dip with vegetable crudite!

Cold Yogurt Soup

While many people turn to gazpacho in the summer, LEVANT recommends trying this cool and nourishing yogurt soup with chickpeas and mint instead. To make it heartier, add bulgur. 


Serves 6

¾ cup bulgur

4 cups whole-milk yogurt

2 garlic cloves, crushed

One 14-ounce can chickpeas, drained

Dry mint or ¼ cup fresh minced mint


  1. Add bulgur to a pot with 1 cup of water and a touch of salt and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cover. Cook for about 10-15 minutes, or until the water is absorbed and the bulgur is tender. Let it cool. 
  2. In a serving bowl, pour the yogurt, beat in 1 cup of cold water, and add the dry or fresh mint, and garlic. Season with salt and mix well. 
  3. Stir in the drained chickpeas and the bulgur and serve. Can be kept cold in your refrigerator for up to 5 days. 


(Poached eggs over a bed of garlicky yogurt) - If you don’t want to give up your yogurt for breakfast, try it with eggs instead! 

This dish is typically made with drizzled melted butter, but LEVANT opts for olive oil instead.


Serves 2

300 grams whole-milk Greek yogurt, at room temperature

1-2 garlic cloves, crushed or minced finely

4 eggs

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 

2 teaspoons Turkish Pul Biber or Aleppo pepper, for taste


  1. Whisk together yogurt (at room temp), garlic and salt. Divide between the two serving bowls and set aside.
  2. Poach each egg in boiling water for about 2 to 3 minutes. When the second egg is cooking, begin the next step. 
  3. In a small pan, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil with 2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper over medium heat. 
  4. Add the poached eggs to the prepared yogurt bowls and drizzle with the heated olive oil. Serve with your favorite bread.
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