How Central Asian Yogurt Took Over America

My kids had plain Greek yogurt for breakfast this morning. Later, my wife told me that our son complained about that other American yogurt while eating. “It’s so gross,” were apparently his exact words.

“Well,” my wife responded. “A lot of Americans might think you’re the strange one for enjoying thick yogurt without any flavoring or sugar in it.”

I smiled when she told me this later in the morning. “Well, except for all the Americans who now eat Chobani. That’s why it’s so popular, because it’s so different from the runny, sugary stuff that used to be the main kind sold here.

We were standing in the kitchen and she held the Greek yogurt container up to our noses.

“Smell this. Isn’t it wonderful? I miss it.”

I took a deep breath, enjoying the sour, rich aroma. “We will have new stomachs, my love, in the resurrection. And we will eat lots of amazing, resurrected yogurt.”

Something has happened to our digestive systems over the last decade, so we can’t handle much dairy anymore, no matter where it comes from.

In spite of this, I always smile to see how many inroads Chobani yogurt and its Greek yogurt competitors have made into the grocery stores and culture of my passport country. What most don’t recognize is that this represents a quiet Central Asian* culinary invasion.

Greek yogurt isn’t really Greek. It would be more accurate to call it Kurdish, Turkish, or Armenian. Even the name of the company that popularized “Greek” yogurt gives this away. Choban is the Turkish and Azerbaijani word for shepherd. It’s one of many related variants of the same word in the region. Kurds say shivan or shwan. Persians say shiban and Tajiks say supon. So, Chobani yogurt means shepherd yogurt, or, in a direct translation, shepherd-y or shepherd-ish yogurt.

The founder of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, is a Kurd from southeast Turkey, who comes from a family of villagers and nomads who made and sold yogurt from their herds. He immigrated to the US in the mid 90’s, and like many from that region, was disappointed by the runny, sugary stuff that Americans called yogurt. Eventually, he purchased a shut-down Kraft factory and began selling denser, more natural yogurt to Americans. It got traction, and today Chobani has around twenty percent of the US market.

Calling it Greek was a shrewd marketing move. Hamdi says there was already a small category of yogurt which was called Greek in New York, but it’s also true that Middle Eastern and Central Asian restaurants and food brands regularly rely on terms like Greek and Mediterranean in order to market themselves effectively for Western customers. Occasionally you’ll find a Mediterranean restaurant that is actually run by Greeks, but more often than not it’s guys from Iraq or Syria. Truth be told, had Hamdi called it Kurdish yogurt, it’s a lot less likely it would have taken off in the way it has.

Hamdi brought with him not only a superior yogurt savvy, but also some sound wisdom from his Central Asian village roots. From the beginning, he opted to pay his factory workers good wages. He gives his employees stock in the company. He actively hires refugees and immigrants alongside of locals. His people-centered approach to business is a rebuke to much of American capitalism – and an example to Christians of how to hold on to your core principles even when your business takes off and grows exponentially. Check out this interview for more of Hamdi’s encouraging story.

Central Asian yogurt’s takeover of America illustrates the benefits that come when different cultural streams mix. Each stream can reintroduce its strengths to the other, in a reminder of sorts of things mostly forgotten. Central Asians teach us what good yogurt is. We teach them what good coffee is. They remind us about the importance of hospitality. We remind them of the importance of transparency.

Perhaps this is one reason God has cultural diversity baked into human history. We too easily forget his wisdom, not only personally, but also collectively. We are in need of other human groups to show us our group’s blindspots and to help us balance our weaknesses. This is an important way the global church can serve local bodies of believers, wherever they might be. By mixing our streams we can more effectively build local church gospel cultures – not uniform, but harmonious, a diversity of expression that grows out of a solid universal core of creed and principle.

The next time you see Chobani or Greek yogurt, think of Central Asia. And if you want to go all the way, eat it with some flatbread, eggs fried in an ungodly amount of oil, olives, honey, walnuts, and extremely sweet tea.

*Here I define Central Asia culturally, rather than geographically, as the collection of cultures in Asia that are Turkish or Persian-related.

Photo by Jainath Ponnala on Unsplash

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