Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thank You Dairy Much

Advice about what to eat and what to avoid in this country is easy to come by. Consistent, reliable advice is more elusive. I think it's due to the fact that just about everyone here has at some point been scarred by a food poisoning incident. It is often from this trauma that we survivors cull lessons on food safety and then share them with others through a PTSD-tainted haze of recollection. This is a recipe for a conflicting variety of local wives' tales and urban legends, and the hard part is balancing the foolishly cavalier advice ("eat everything and drink the water in order to build up immunity!" -- scientifically false) with the overly cautious warnings ("street food could kill you!" -- investigation ongoing).

Enter yogurt. Before Claudine turned away from dairy due to lactose intolerance, she turned me on to Greek yogurt, and Fage-brand yogurt quickly became a daily staple in my diet. Greek yogurt is basically strained yogurt, a thick, high-protein cousin to your typical Dannon or Yoplait cup. I wanted to continue my yogurt habit in Nepal, but I heard conflicting reports on dairy here. Questionable pasteurization and refrigeration here made yogurt a risky gamble, warned some, but I had read that yogurt is usually safe in any country because "the milk is boiled before fermentation and the final product is slightly acidic and thus less favorable for survival of noxious bacteria." What is a culinary adventurer to do? Once our friend Heather, a battle-hardened Kathmandu veteran, gave me the thumbs up, I dove in.

I picked up a tub of plain, non-sugared yogurt at the local grocery store. I went with the Nepal Dairy brand because it looked the most "polished" (which isn't saying much given that the lids are very loosely secured and the containers are covered with a patina of gritty dairy slime).

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I avoided the clay pots of yogurt the store offered because I wasn't sure how this whole yogurt experiment would shake out, and, given my uncertainty, a product in a printed container seemed less risky than an uncovered clay pot of unknown provenance.

Low and behold, the yogurt in the container looked like...yogurt.

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I doctored it up a bit and, hesitantly, took my first bite.

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Yep, definitely yogurt. I braced myself for either a triumphant food discovery or my first bout of food poisoning since arriving to Nepal. Only time would tell.

24 symptom-less hours later, I declared victory. I deemed yogurt here to be safe but a bit too watery for my strained-yogurt tastes. Experiment number two was to strain the yogurt more to my liking. I had higher confidence in this endeavor because Claudine had undertaken a similar project years before when, after discovering labneh cheese during an excellent Israeli brunch in Brooklyn, she decided to reproduce the cheese in our Chicago refrigerator. Labneh is basically super-strained yogurt that has the consistency of soft cream cheese and it is, in my opinion, delicious. Our local grocery store didn't have cheese cloth for straining, so a porous dishtowel would do. Life in Kathmandu: improvise, improvise, improvise.

I strained in two stages. It only took about an hour for the yogurt to strain to the consistency of Greek yogurt. At this point I removed a large serving for myself and enjoyed it with a light topping of beaten rice (a bit like puffed rice) for some texture and a touch of local honey for sweetness. Its flavor was fresher and stronger than the mass-produced Fage-brand yogurt I am used to, but I liked it. Claudine? Not so much (I made her try a taste).

I let the remainder strain overnight to make some labneh cheese. I awoke in the morning to delicious success.

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Greek yogurt will once again be a staple in our home and I am pleased to add labneh (great with a bit of extra virgin olive oil) to the menu. For those of you in Kathmandu uninterested in producing your own Greek yogurt, our friend Brian sells it at the farmer's markets on the weekends (but get there early, it -- like his other tasty products -- goes fast). There you can also get a variety of excellent local cheeses, although if you want labneh you'll have to come try it at my place or just follow the story above to make your own (instructions functional in all countries).

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