‘The Yogurt Man Cometh’

‘The Yogurt Man Cometh’

Aylin Öney TAN - aylin.tan@hdn.com.tr
‘The Yogurt Man Cometh’

The owner of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya and his mother Emine Hanım.

This was the title of Kevin Revolinski’s book about his time in Turkey. The story of his year-long stay in Turkey as an English teacher for a private school in Ankara starts with his shock at having a yogurt vendor knocking on his door trying to sell him yogurt. Yogurt delivery to one’s door is an odd enough experience for him, and that was not just one cup of yogurt but almost a bucketful of yogurt. He had no idea how to consume that amount of this tangy acquired taste, and of course no idea how to use it as an ingredient in the kitchen. The first couple of pages of the memoir go on and on with this hilarious story of the yogurt man and his keen struggle to sell six kilos of yogurt to this foreigner who simply was not interested in having some yogurt.

Last week, I gave a talk for the Culinary Historians of New York at the Turkish Cultural Center in New York City. One of the anecdotes I mentioned was this story of a foreigner trying to adapt himself to the Turkish style of living by adopting a taste for yogurt. Another story was how anthropologist Ulla Johansen managed to join the great walk of the Yörüks back in the year 1957. When Johansen wanted to join the Yörük migration for six months, she convinced Isa Emmi, the leader of the tribe, by saying yogurt was her favorite food. She was soon to regret that however, after a diet of solely bulgur and yogurt day after day.

From earliest history to the present day, yogurt has been an important staple of Turkish cuisine. Yogurt can appear in the most unusual forms in Turkish cookery; strained, preserved, salted and potted. Even dried or smoked varieties of yogurt are found throughout the country. I managed to bring along with me “burnt” yogurt of Denizli, “salted and cooked” yogurt of Antakya and soap-like “dried” yogurt kurut and keş from Bolu, to offer a tasting of interesting yogurts to my colleagues in New York. I was soon to discover that yogurt was taking off as the hottest selling new product in U.S. market!

‘The Turkish King of Greek Yogurt’

This title belonged to Bloomberg Business Week, talking about the Chobani guy. When in New York my visit would not be complete without meeting with Hamdi Ulukaya, the legendary founder and CEO of Chobani yogurts. Born to a Kurdish family from Tunceli, he started to study at Ankara University Faculty of Political Sciences and then dropped out in 1994 to try his chances abroad. He started a billion-dollar business just by making yogurt, taking over a closing factory in upstate New York. Greeks are jealous of him as he surpassed all his rivals, including the Athens-based Fage, and Turks are furious about him naming the good old Turkish yogurt “Greek” and making it sounding even more Greek by naming it Chobani, by adding the ‘i’ to Çoban, the Turkish word for shepherd.

Hamdi Ulukaya has a beautifully designed playful office on Spring Street, his two German shepherd dogs wandering between desks. He is warm and friendly, smiling all the time. Just as we take a seat at the center table in the middle of the open office loft, a woman appears serving him karnıyarık, a split–belly eggplant dish, and şehriyeli pilav, rice pilaf with orzo instead of the trays of sushi available for employees. He lovingly calls her “Anacım!,” my mother. Emine Ulukaya seems to be only interested in feeding her son and complaining about the quality of eggplants in New York. When I tell Hamdi Ulukaya about my ideas to make yogurt more popular in the U.S., she intervenes with concern. She says the company has already become too big to handle, his son trying hard to cope with the demand, apparently fearing that the business will take her son away from her. In the meantime she tries to feed me more Chobani yogurt. She fills my bag with the newest flavors of yogurt and slips in a handful of Chobani Champions, a new invention of chilled yogurt in a tube, coming in flavors like Rockin’ Blueberry, Swirlin’ Strawberry and Chillin’ Cherry. Her Anatolian motherly warmth is contagious and as I take their pictures, I find myself hugging her like an old relative.

The yogurt man cometh! Surely so... He is exactly like the assertive yogurt man that came to Kevin Revolinski’s door. Hamdi Ulukaya is now at the doorstep of the Americans to change their attitude toward yogurt forever. It will be no surprise when the trendy healthy yogurt bar in Soho takes over U.S. cities shortly. The Americans might start to buy their yogurt by the bucket soon. After all, “the yogurt man has cometh” to their doorsteps, and is decidedly keen to sell his yogurt!

Recipe of the Week: Beets and yogurt go amazingly well together. This was also discovered by chef Dan Kluger of ABC Kitchen NYC, who serves an amazing homemade yogurt and roasted beets on his farm-to-table menu. Selected as the Best New Chef of last year by Food & Wine magazine, he had the honor of serving U.S. President Barack Obama. A more Turkish version was made by Charity Robey, the running force behind my yogurt talk at Culinary Historians of New York. It was delightfully simple, light and delicious. Wrap two or three beets individually in aluminum foil and bake for about 50 minutes in a hot oven. When thoroughly cooked let them cool, slide off the skins and grate coarsely. Mix two cups of yogurt with a clove of garlic crushed with one teaspoon of salt. Add the grated beets and mix  thoroughly. Arrange on a platter, garnish with chopped dill and serve.

Bite of the week

Fork of the week

For those who will pay a visit to New York soon, a stop at the Chobani Soho Mediterranean yogurt bar located at 150 Prince Street will be an adventure for discovering new flavors. Traditional Mediterranean pairings like sweet fig and walnut or savory cucumber and olive oil are contrasted with all-American inventions like peanut butter and jelly.

Cork of the week

Yogurt is not really compatible with wine, but goes amazingly well with rakı. However this shocking pink beet & yogurt salad will work wonderfully with ice cold shots of vodka. Good old classic Binboa will be fine, but try a new twist with the recently launched Binboa Pear & Ginger. If that is your choice you may wish to add a teaspoon of grated fresh ginger to your beet recipe, or maybe shot of vodka instead.