A SPOONFUL OF YOGURT

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My Madeleine: in the first of a new series, the novelist Kapka Kassabova eats her way into her past

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January February 2013

You’re on a desert island and allowed only one food—what would it be? I’ll have yogurt, thanks. I’ll have your ration of yogurt, too. I’ll have yogurt before I have oxygen. For me, yogurt is oxygen. 

The past makes choices for us, and my choice was made in a Sofia apartment. I’m at the kitchen table which comes up to my face, and my face is involved with a tub of plain yogurt. Everybody knows that the way to tackle a tub of yogurt is with a spoon, and that yogurt is best eaten before, with, and after your meal. On this occasion I’m snacking, and the guilty knowledge that this tub of yogurt was reserved for tonight doesn’t take away the pleasure. In fact, guilt might be the pleasure. The spoon cuts into a surface pristine as a snowy morning in the Balkan mountains; with each spoonful, I carve out sharp white cliffs. The yogurt is firm and fatty on my tongue, and I can feel its edges; the sad advent of low-fat is still in the future. It is cool, clean and silent all the way down when I swallow. I am at the source of life. Nothing can go wrong. 

Nothing except my mother’s exhausted arrival from work after hours of queuing to buy provisions. Nothing, except this is 1970s Bulgaria where everything except state slogans ("Let us build Socialism with a human face!") is in short supply. Especially in Sofia, a city caught in the spell of tinkling trams and late totalitarianism whose problem is that it doesn’t actually have a face. So, the more desolate the shops, the more vital the private kitchen. The kitchen is a hub of political jokes, aromatic dishes, and love—things that nobody can take away from you.  

Things my Macedonian grandmother cooked in quantities that looked like a political statement but were to do with gluttony: casserole of new lamb with spring onions, fresh mint and parsley, garnished with dollops of yogurt; coils of fluffy hot banitsa pastry stuffed with spinach and eggs, laden with yogurt to cool it off; moussaka, mince-stuffed peppers, lamb in a clay dish, chicken with rice and mushrooms, beef with garlic and okra—all crowned by a yogurt-and-egg topping which goes golden and puffy in the oven and tastes tangy and moreish. My mother also stirred a spoonful of yogurt into lamb soup, chicken soup, spinach, chard and nettle soup. When we ran out of yogurt, she used lemon. When we ran out of lemons, she used crystals of citric acid. Like state slogans about productivity, citric acid never ran out. 

And anyway, you could make your own yogurt—like my perpetually gastronomic great-aunt in the countryside, who had beehives and grew her own vegetables. She spooned yogurt culture into jars of milk, wrapped them in the Worker’s Deed newspapers that my great-uncle pretended to read, and kept them in a warm cupboard overnight. Hey presto, in the morning we had yogurt; later it became chilled yogurt “soup”, tarator—a happy harbinger of spring. For this, chop some crunchy cucumber, fresh dill, garlic and crush some walnuts. Slurp it in your auntie’s garden under the vine-leaves and smile with missing teeth as if nothing bad could happen. And let’s not forget the comfort drink of Balkan childhood—airan—which is a glass of yogurt smoothly mixed with water; perfect with a mound of fried potatoes topped with grated feta. When things seem broken, all it takes to connect me back to myself is a glass of airan (though a mound of fried potatoes also helps). 

Now you see why every week my supermarket trolley contains a dozen pots of goat’s yogurt. Goat’s because I’m now cow-intolerant, which is a blessing since goat’s yogurt is superior in taste, creaminess and tartness. What my alarmed fellow shoppers fail to see is that yogurt is a magic ingredient, not just some flavoured after-thought. Yogurt (not buttermilk, please!) goes into homemade soda bread and all manner of other secrets, like a heart-melting Lebanese yogurt-and-pistachio cake. 

I have eaten my way across the globe and lived in English-speaking cultures for 20 years, yet the culture of Lactobacillus bulgaricus is my gustatory blueprint, and my culinary home is with Turks, Greeks, Middle Easterners and Balkan neighbours. Those Bulgarian mountain-folk who were the subject of a pioneering study of longevity for the biologist Mechnikov were onto something. They were making the kind of yogurt that you cut with a knife, and minding their own business. If we could shut up about borders and eat a daily bowl of humble yogurt together—trust me, nothing bad could happen.

Kapka Kassabova is a poet living in the Scottish Highlands and the author of "12 Minutes of Love".