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Source: Washington Post

May 17, 2023

A new Iranian cookbook puts the spotlight on yogurt and whey

By Deborah Reid

Two weeks before the launch of Homa Dashtaki’s book “Yogurt & Whey,” she threw a party at the California Zoroastrian Center in Westminster, southeast of Los Angeles. For several days she and her parents shaped spiced ground meat for kebab koobideh around swordlike skewers to sizzle over charcoal, streamed tart pomegranate molasses into the stew fesenjān, and poured steeped saffron, like marigold ribbons, into Persian rice. Garlands of oranges and their leaves ran down the center of feast tables, a homage to the culture’s agrarian roots.

As members of the Indigenous Iranian Zoroastrian community — arguably the first monotheistic religion in the world, dating back to the 5th century BCE — Dashtaki’s family had lived in the belly of the adobe village, Yazd, Iran. When she was a girl, they immigrated to America. The friends who had embraced them decades earlier gathered around her on this night. “My book is launching in two weeks, and before I give it to anyone else, I need you to have it,” she said to her guests. “This is for you.”

For anyone living within a 20-mile radius of the White Moustache, the yogurt business she founded in Brooklyn, Dashtaki’s expertise is well-established. The yogurt’s unique tang is delicious, eaten plain or in Persian-inspired flavors such as date and sour cherry. At the outset, skeptics couldn’t imagine that making yogurt would lead to success. Her choice of work is poignant given that as a teenager she wanted nothing to do with any food that would set her apart from her peers in the high school cafeteria.

Beyond celebrating her rich birthright, the book explores Dashtaki’s most significant business problem. Some of the whey is strained off to achieve the yogurt’s velvety texture, leaving the nutrient-rich “almost neon green” extract. In a shockingly anti-capitalist move she calls “intentionally unsavvy,” she capped production for a period to search for a way to use it. Throwing it out was cheap but didn’t sit right with her.

She tried selling it in bottles with little luck. Recently she’s made whey tonics and ice pops with it, and there’s still whey left to sell to restaurants and bakeries. "I'm wildly ambitious and am always percolating ideas," she says.

From a distance in a bookstore, it isn’t apparent that “Yogurt & Whey” is a cookbook; it’s international in design, with no food shot or smiling celebrity chef on the cover.

"Cookbooks have leaned so heavily on beautiful photography on every page, but it can get tiresome," says creative director Sarah Cave. "We wanted to create a graphic abstract to look like pools of spilled cream in a color reminiscent of poured plaster."

Homa Dashtaki. (Michael Cervieri and W.W. Norton)

The handful of photos inside often reference the ancient Zoroastrian food culture and their sophisticated hospitality. You’ll catch glimpses of Dashtaki’s father Goshtasb’s bushy mustache that inspired the business name. Recipes are set on the page with plenty of white space, giving the book a meditative quality. Throughout are charming illustrations by Iranian multidisciplinary artist Roksana Pirouzmand. Talk to any of the collaborators, and it’s clear there was an abundance of pleasure working as a community on the project.

Most cookbooks are made in a two- or three-year breakneck cycle from the proposal stage to bookstore shelves. Dashtaki took nine years. “I’m so grateful it was allowed to cook and incubate as long as it did,” she says. The long production infuses it with a mature intelligence. The subject may be niche, but the cookbook has the confidence and singular vision of a classic.

“It’s a grown-up book,” says Nicola Miller, the British food writer behind the newsletter “Tales From Topographic Kitchens.” “I’d expect to find it alongside Patience Gray’s ‘Honey From a Weed.’”

“Yogurt & Whey” is part literary. It reads like a novel — the recipes and chapters are wrapped in stories written by the kind of cook you want to have a long talk with in the kitchen.

“One of the books I emulated was ‘Like Water for Chocolate.’ I loved its emotion,” Dashtaki says. “I was writing about my life, including ingredients like lemons, walnuts, and mint.” Modern and traditional recipes punctuate the narrative — the lush New York Shuk Salad with its creamy roast eggplant and saffron yogurt finish, the fresh whey ceviche, and whey pancakes to please everyone.

In the current zeitgeist for all things fermented, it surely will appeal to anyone curious about wild cultures — from sourdough to brines.

“I am Armenian, and yogurt has been a big part of my life,” said Andrew Janjigian, the food writer behind the newsletter “Wordloaf.” “I’m loathe to waste, and the whey pickles have inspired me.”

Saffron yogurt for New York Shuk Eggplant. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

The master recipe for the White Moustache Yogurt and Whey runs four pages. “I feel like I’m sharing a secret family recipe with you,” Dashtaki writes. “I have nothing bigger to offer.”

Most recipes in the cookbook call for yogurt or whey, but as her business suggests, you don’t need to make them. Buying locally produced yogurt is ideal with one caveat; it can’t contain stabilizers or thickeners that will prevent the yogurt and whey from separating. Several recipes, such as the Cauliflower Whey Soup, call for quantities of whey beyond what straining a jar or tub of yogurt will yield. Dashtaki recommends buying whey from a local yogurt maker.

In the headnotes for the chapter on wine and whey cocktails, Dashtaki writes, “May we all be given the time to reach such full potential.”

Don’t ask her what’s next. She had to work through grief and sadness after receiving the final copy, knowing part of the journey was over. True to form as a long-game player, she says, “I want to celebrate this book for the next 10 years.”

White Moustache Yogurt is a handmade, hand-strained and hand-packed Brooklyn-based yogurt brand. Some of the flavors include dates, sour cherry, Greek, and walnut with honey. (Michael Cervieri/White Moustache Yogurt)

Get the recipe: New York Shuk Eggplant

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