People have been eating yogurt for millennia, and Jews have played a major role in spreading its appeal. Here are five little-known Jewish facts about this dairy treat – plus some unusual and delicious Jewish yogurt recipes.

1 Ancient Israeli Staple

The Torah describes ancient Israel as “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). Food historians believe that the “honey” the Torah describes was date honey, a delicious thick, sweet syrup made from dates that is still popular in the land of Israel and throughout the Middle East today.

The milk that the Torah describes as being abundant in the Land of Israel was likely eaten in large quantities as yogurt.

Dr. Mark Thomas of University College London has studied the diets of ancient people and believes that yogurt was first created thousands of years ago, in the Neolithic Period, in the Middle East. Middle Eastern farmers began domesticating sheep, cows and goats, and found that their milk was a key source of nutrition. Without refrigeration, the milk invariably began to ferment, forming yogurt. : “If you milked a cow in the morning...in the Near East by lunchtime it would have started to ferment into yogurt,” Dr. Thomas said.

A depiction of meal with cheese from Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook on health and well-being based on the Taqwim al‑sihha, an 11th-century Arab medical treatise.

Fermenting milk allowed it to keep longer. It also helped break down some of the lactose in milk, making it easier to digest. Ancient yogurt was likely discovered by shepherds who stored milk in skins made from sacks fashioned out of goat stomachs. In the warm climate, the milk reacted with enzymes from the goat stomach sacks and fermented into yogurt. According to writer Ronit Treatman, ancient Jewish shepherds prepared their yogurt a differently. Since the laws of kashrut prohibit mixing milk and meat, Jewish cooks prepared yogurt by “heating the milk over a fire and stirring it with a fig tree branch. The sap of the fig tree curdled the milk…” The result was a soft cheese, which was sometimes eaten with honey.

Turkish Favorite

Yogurt became popular across the Middle East in ancient times. In Arabic it was called laban, which can also mean “milk”. Many popular yogurt varieties in Israel are called laban today, probably stemming from the Hebrew word lavan which means white. According to food historian Gil Marks notes that yogurt was most famously embraced by the Ottoman Turks, who made it a central element of their cuisine and spread it throughout the Ottoman Empire. In fact, yogurt became such a staple in Turkish and Arab kitchens that a popular Muslim myth sprang up that the patriarch Abraham was the first human to make yogurt, and that he was taught the recipe by an angel.

Jewish Doctor Bringing Yogurt to France

King Francis I ruled France from 1494 to 1547; he is famous for instituting the Franco-Ottoman Alliance, forming a pact with Ottoman Emperor Suleiman I. (Suleiman is well known in Israel today for ordering the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s city walls in 1537. These magnificent walls still stand, lending grandeur to central Jerusalem’s beautiful skyline.)

King Francis I

It seems that King Francis I experienced some stomach upset and his new ally Suleiman I apparently wanted to curry favor with the French monarch by helping cure him. Suleiman I dispatched a Jewish doctor from Turkey to France to bring some yogurt as a cure for the king's stomach ailment.

Suleiman I was onto something: eating yogurt has long been considered a cure for some stomach problems, and recent research has borne this out. Consuming yogurt has been shown to reduce some stomach upset in laboratory conditions.

American Jewish food writer June Hersh notes that the Jewish doctor who was sent to France walked that considerable distance on foot since he wouldn't ride on the Sabbath. He brought along his own flock of sheep with him on the long journey, and he personally used their milk to prepare royal yogurt for the king. The Jewish doctor’s cure worked: yogurt helped King Francis I feel better, and the Jewish doctor made his long way home back to Turkey.

Yogurt in Sephardi Cuisine

Yogurt has long had an outsize role in Jewish cuisine, particularly from Sephardi regions. “Yogurt is to the Sephardim what sour cream is to the Ashkenazim,” notes Jewish cookbook writer Claudia Roden (cited in The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York by Claudia Roden, Alfred A. Knopf: 1996). “It was always part of the meatless meals (and) was used like a sauce – poured over hot rice or cracked wheat or lentils and spread on slices of fried eggplants, or served as a bed for poached eggs or as an accompaniment to vegetable omelets.”

In Iraqi Jewish homes, yogurt was typically sweetened with date honey. In some Sephardi communities, yogurt was made with buffalo milk, which was said to result in the thickest, creamiest yogurt. Sometimes yogurt is strained to result in a thicker cheese called labne, which is eaten as an accompaniment to vegetables or salad.

Jewish Doctor Inventing Dannon Yogurt

In the late 1800s, one of Europe’s leading scientific voices belonged to Elie Metchnikoff (1845-1916), the son of a Jewish woman in Ukraine. Dr. Metchnikoff worked at the Louis Pasteur Clinic in Paris and spent his later years advocating lactic-acid producing bacteria (found in yogurt and yogurt-like drinks) as a powerful way to extend lifespans. His groundbreaking research helped spark a global “milk craze” of drinking sour milk concoctions including buttermilk, carbonated milk, and yogurt drinks.

Dr. Isaac Carasso

One young Jewish doctor in Barcelona in Spain encouraged this craze. Dr. Isaac Carasso was born in Salonika in Greece in 1874, and moved to Spain to practice medicine. (His surname is sometimes variously spelled as Karasu and Carusso.) He began importing yogurt from the Balkans to Barcelona, where he encouraged his patients to eat this healthy food as a cure for various stomach ailments.

In time, Dr. Carasso decided to open his own yogurt factory in Barcelona. He named it after his son Daniel – whose nickname in the local Catalan dialect was “Danone”. Dr. Carasso experimented with manufacturing Danone yogurt in small individual glass jars, making it easy for consumers to enjoy his delicious yogurt.

Daniel Carasso studied in France, and in 1929 he expanded his father’s Danone yogurt business into Paris. Eventually Daniel became head of the business, but trouble soon followed. After World War II broke out, Daniel fled Europe to the United States, traveling with a friend, Joseph Metzger, a Swiss-born Jew. The two businessmen settled in New York in 1942 and opened an American branch of Danone, called Dannon, in the Bronx. There, they manufactured flavored yogurts in one-cup sizes, packaging their yogurts in plastic containers.

Daniel Carasso

They were moderately successful at first. Most of their customers were Greeks and Turks living in New York and longing for a taste of home. Daniel and Joseph began experimenting with new tastes to appeal to American palettes. First, they placed some strawberry preserves at the bottom of their plain yogurt so consumers could mix the jam into the yogurt. This proved a hit, and soon the businessmen added lemon curd, blueberry jam and raspberries to their yogurts. Sales soared as Americans discovered yogurt snacks for the first time.

Daniel reclaimed the French part of his company after World War II, and in 1951 he sold it to the Beatrice Corporation. Today, Dannon is the largest yogurt manufacturer in North America, controlling over a third of the $10.1 billion market in America alone.

Creative Israeli Yogurt Recipes

Yogurt is a popular ingredient in Israeli and Jewish kitchens today. “For Israeli cooks, yogurt is far more than a healthy snack,” observe Israeli cookbook writers Einat Admony and Janna Gur: “It’s an essential cooking ingredient used for sauces, dressings, and sweet and savory baking and adds a fresh creamy element to countless dishes.”

Here is a delicious savory sauce recipe they suggest. It goes well with any fried food, such as fish, and is also delicious with vegetables and salad.

Preserved Lemon and Yogurt Dressing

  • 8 wedges preserved lemon
  • 1 jalapeno chili, cored, seeded and coarsely chopped (optional)
  • ¼ cup (60 ml) fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ cup (60 ml) water
  • 2 T honey
  • 1 t ground turmeric
  • 2 t kosher salt
  • 2 T extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups (480 ml) whole-milk Greek yogurt

Rinse the preserved lemon wedges and remove the seeds. Combine the preserved lemon, jalapeno (if using), lemon juice, water, honey, turmeric, salt, and oil in a food processor and puree until you have a completely smooth mixture – this may take a couple of minutes, so be patient.

Add the yogurt and pules a few times, until the sauce is smooth and lemony yellow.

If not using at once, store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 week. Makes 3 cups.

(From Shuk: From Market to tTable, the Heart of Israeli Home Cooking by Einat Admony and Janna Gur, Artisan: 2019.)

For a sweet yogurt treat, here’s a delicious yogurt-based popsicle recipe from Israeli-based cookbook writer Adeena Sussman:

Fig and Yogurt Pops with Tahini Magic Shell

Pops:

  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • ¼ cup honey
  • Generous pinch of ground cardamom
  • Pinch of fine sea salt
  • 2 or 3 large, plump fresh figs
  • (Will also need popsicle molds)

Tahini Magic Shell:

  • 1 cup pure tahini paste
  • ½ cup coconut oil, melted
  • Make the freeze the pops:

In a medium bowl, whisk together the yogurt, honey, cardamom, and salt. Take a look at your popsicle molds and gauge how thick you need to slice your figs; you want to be able to slide the figs into the molds so they are fairly tightly wedged in place (this will mean you’ll see figs after they’re frozen). Slide 1 large or 2 smaller fig slices into the molds, then press a wooden popsicle stick through the figs down into the bottom of the molds. Pour the yogurt mixture around the figs, moving the figs slightly with your fingers and tapping the molds against the counter to allow the yogurt to fill any gaps and air pockets. Freeze until solid, 3 to 4 hours (or if you have an instant popsicle maker, by all means use that.)

Make the magic shell and finish the pops:

Once the pops are frozen, combine the tahini and coconut oil until smooth in a glass that can fit the popsicle without it touching its sides. Line a plate with wax paper and place it in the freezer. Loosen the pops by letting them sit out for 5 minutes, or run the outside of the molds carefully under warm water in 15 second increments until they release. Dip each pop into the tahini mixture, pull it out, and let the excess mixture drip off. If desired, dip again; the mixture should harden almost immediately. Place each pop on the wax paper-lined plate as they’re done. Freeze for a few minutes before serving, or wrap each pop in wax paper, then in plastic wrap, and store in the freezer for up to 1 week.

Makes 4 pops.

(From Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen by Adeena Sussman, Avery, New York: 2019.)