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An interview with Homa Dashtaki, author of 'Yogurt & Whey'
Last month I had a long conversation with Homa Dashtaki, the owner of NYC’s White Moustache Yogurt and the author of the new book Yogurt & Whey: Recipes of an Iranian Immigrant Life. I’ve recently started making my own yogurt at home regularly, and this book could not have come at a better time. Not only did I have piles of whey—the neon-green, milky liquid leftover from straining yogurt in order to thicken it—to use up, but I also needed some expert advice on yogurt making, since mine was inconsistent from batch to batch.
Yogurt & Whey is a book born of whey. Like me, Homa and White Moustache found themselves with lots of whey that they were reluctant to let go to waste (in their case, they had no choice but to find a use for it, because it would have been illegal to send down the drain in such quantities). Here’s how Homa describes the dilemma they faced, from the book’s introduction:
Because The White Moustache is a small, handmade-yogurt company, we are closer to our product and feel the loss of the whey more personally. In our view, it's as nonsensical to throw out gallons of liquid yogurt whey as it would be to toss out gallons of solid yogurt. These two yin-yang products are equally nutritious. If you lived in a world where everyone knew what to do with egg yolks but always threw out the egg whites, wouldn't you share your knowledge and teach everyone about meringue?
And so, in August 2014, after only a year and a half in business, we made a conscious and intentionally un-savvy business move to cap our yogurt production until we had created a market for our whey. We were not going to make more yogurt and end up with more whey on our hands than we could use.
While it might be seen as a counterintuitive business decision to focus on selling an unfamiliar ingredient like yogurt whey, we see it as a long-term, ambitious strategy. Even if we make a ton of yogurt, it doesn't feel like a true success if we're creating all this waste. We consider our celebration of yogurt whey to be the greatest contribution that The White Moustache can make to the food system.
The company began bottling and selling whey as a tangy probiotic drink, though it hardly flew off the shelves. They did find another market for it with chefs and bartenders, who came up with endless novel uses for the stuff in drinks, main dishes, baked goods, and sweets. Many of the recipes in Yogurt & Whey were inspired by these creations. Other recipes in the book come from Homa’s Iranian & Zoroastrian heritage; some of these contain yogurt or its derivatives, others are simply the traditional dishes she grew up eating.
In addition to the interview, I have a recipe to share from the book, for cake Yazdi, which are little tea cakes made with rice flour and yogurt:
And a recipe of my own, using whey and inspired by the book, a rye-whey loaf which has quickly become a favorite:
I hope you enjoy this interview, and I hope it inspires you to get a copy of this wonderful book, one of my favorite of the year so far.
Andrew: When did the idea for the book come about? And why did it take seven years to materialize?
Homa Dashtaki: It actually took nine. The book was just such a weird roller coaster that developed its own life and its own being. The reason it got started was as a way to get the word out on whey. I'm not a chef, I have no culinary or scientific attachment to cooking—I have an emotional, traditional, generational nostalgic connection to cooking. But I'm a yogurt maker with all of those values.
And I was just sitting on a pile of whey that I know comes from the most sacred ingredient on earth. I know dairy is controversial. But part of the reason is controversial is because we don't revere it, and treat it with the kind of respect and lack of waste that it deserves.
I can only chug so much of it myself or force it on my dad. I thought, we have got to do something. At first I was very alarmist, like, This is a big deal, this is a huge problem, we have got to solve this.
And then I realized, No, this is a love letter to this ingredient. There are so many ways to celebrate it, whether it's in a drink, in a soup, or in breads. I just wanted to plant the seed to inspire folks like yourself, who are better at doing things like baking bread, and making soups and cocktails than I am, to just make this ingredient into something that could be interesting, that could add a little mystery to what you're serving. And at the same time solve this enormous issue of there being a ton of whey.
To me, it's just an opportunity—the way we think and use and evaluate whey could then be an inspiration for other companies who have waste to get very ambitious about what they have. A lot of alcohol makers historically have done this, folks have just turned anything that was going bad into booze. Matchbook Distilling on Long Island turns our whey into like some of the most potent liquor I've ever had, and I love it. This is the shit that I wanted these geniuses to use this whey for, to make something brand new. And I find it now just extremely, breathlessly exciting.
The reason the book took so long was that the story became just bigger than that. I thought was going to be a bunch of pancake recipes and some cocktail recipes. And, this is where my editor and the many, many people whose fingers touched the writing kind of pushed me to to tell the bigger story: What is it about my background and my culture that sort of makes me think about whey this this way? That part was hard to tell—I don't love being overexposed or the center of the attention. And that was hard for me to do.
AJ: One of my favorite parts of the book is the personal stories you tell—of your family and your your religion, and your place in all of that. That's the sort of thing that only makes a book better, as long as the person who's putting their whole heart into it, and it's definitely there.
HD: If somebody's gonna read this, I'm gonna really just throw all of me into it and leave nothing left unturned or unsaid. And at the end, it kind of made me realize that this is a storybook, this is a sharing of my very unique background and circumstances. I thought of my audience as other Iranians or Zoroastrians who may have felt like they didn't really know how to articulate their place. And I think by becoming so insular, in my storytelling and in my community, in my audience, I can provide someone who doesn't have the same background a much richer view into my world.
For example, I discussed one of the soups as if it was a dance where time is the leading ingredient. I was given the luxury to treat it like a poem, almost. And I wanted to lend the book the very Iranian sense of drama and hospitality, showmanship, and just extraness.
That part of it was really a pleasure, as well, so I'm glad.
AJ: Have other Zoroastrians told you how they feel about the book now that it's in the world?
HD: Yeah. I'm sure there's plenty who don't say anything. I've been waiting for them to be like, Well, I don't make this this way! And I want that banter. I love that kind of banter in the kitchen, like, Too much salt, too little salt, too much flour, blah, blah, blah. But the parts of the personal story that have resonated with fellow Iranian Zoroastrians, where they feel really seen by me is very touching and very validating. It makes the whole thing so so so deeply, personally worth it.
When the book first launched, I actually shared it with the Zoroastrian community first. I wanted the very first people to read the book to be members of the church that I grew up in, in California. So we got the entire community together and cooked a lot of the foods that are in the book and just celebrated how everybody in that room really helped me both come of age, and then start White Moustache. I mean, we all thought it was a joke, like, Oh, really, a yogurt company? For Zoroastrians, yogurt is just taken for granted. That joke became serious, it became a company, and now it's become a book. I don't take that support for for granted, so I was very glad to share it with them first.
AJ: I was talking with a friend who used to live in New York and when I mentioned I was going to speak to the owner of White Moustache Yogurt, she said that when she lived there she was 25% made up of White Moustache Yogurt, she ate so much of it.
HD: I’d love send that person a card! I actually have this suspicion that I only have like 15 customers, but those are the ones that buy it all up, who have it every day. I'm very protective of folks like that, very protective of every single jar.
And I'm also protective of the process. A part of me was like, I'm gonna put myself out of business with this book, maybe. I don't know if you use my technique or an InstaPot. But if you just read about my technique, if you just read about how I think about milk, and that reverence comes across, that to me is so worth it. And then knowing what you do with both the yogurt and the whey, and all the possibilities that come from that little “egg” that you‘ve laid overnight. That's the life and the community sustains me. So your friend’s quote really puffs me up.
AJ: You asked me about my yogurt process, or what I've tried. Reading the book made me take a step back and reconsider it, and the yogurt has improved as a result. I'm a bread baker first. And bread baking requires a level of precision to make it work right. And when you are in that mind frame, it's hard to get out of it and be a little more loosey-goosey than normal. But also, I am Armenian and I come from a yogurt eating culture and my family has always made yogurt the way that you describe. I even have the family yogurt blanket, a ratty, falling-apart quilted blanket that I refuse to throw away—it both literally and figuratively has culture in it. So I'm gonna go back to that and process and see how it compares to my “precision” method.
HD: I was a little nervous talking to you, because I know you come from this very precise, scientific background, and I'm like, Let's just feel it, man. Maybe there's feminine-masculine energy, if you want to be a hippie about it. But I do think there is something that I would like to impart even to a precise technician like yourself.
As you go into that technique, to just really feel the intelligence within your own body to sense the temperature of the milk. Or to really understand that milk is changing from the summertime to the wintertime. And it shouldn't be the same every single time.
And there's something that ancient blanket that you have, the genetic memory of historically making yogurt that is really, really intelligent and really, really connected to these sacred ingredients. And you can be as precise and scientific about it as you want.
And part of the reason I have so much trouble running White Moustache is because everyone is like, Oh, you need to like fine tune this!, and meanwhile we're still wrapping our vats up in blankets. Or season to season sometimes a batch won't take because we didn't count on the milk getting sweet or fatty at the times that it did. And I personally love that. I love that it is this living, breathing process. And if I can impart that to a precise scientist like yourself, I think there's value in that.
AJ: I'm writing a book right now on bread baking and I've been teaching bread making to people for more than 10 years, and while my work is based in science and precision, it is a fact that I'm working with living creatures too. And you cannot force them to submit to your will, you have to adapt to them. That's something I both had to learn myself, and something I have to teach people who think that just being precise is enough to make it work and work consistently.
HD: There is a mastery to it that I think is both scientific and kind of intangible, mastery that comes with practice. And in a way that should be liberating. The more batches of yogurt, the more batches of bread you make the closer you are to that intelligence.
AJ: You talked earlier about the soup that was like a dance. There's a kinetic understanding that only comes with getting your hands in the dough or your pinky in the milk. That takes practice and time. And once it once it becomes familiar, it's second nature. It's a relationship, and as long as you're treating your partner, well it will treat you back well. But you need to learn that.
HD: Yeah, well, now I'm curious. Another reason the book was difficult for me to write is I felt like I was somehow betraying my ancestors and my elders who taught me how to cook some of these recipes through an oral tradition. And the way you learn in an oral tradition, there's so many unsaid, body-language things. So much of the learning is in the doing and the apprenticeship. And writing it down in a way felt like a betrayal of that.
Something like: “Three onions for a soup, but it could work with two, it could work with five!” That sort of intelligence is passed on in the apprenticeship oral tradition. But you can't do that in writing.
AJ: One of the things that first jumped out at me was the voice in the book. I’ll admit that I thought, Oh, I should schedule an interview with Homa just so I can talk to this person who is so funny and whose personality is so on the page in this book.
HD: You must have gotten to the baby spit-up.
Soon after, the entire surface of the liquid will start slowly rolling and percolating, the solids drifting like a sky full of clouds. Once this happens, continue cooking for 10 minutes longer, stirring gently but frequently to prevent the bottom layer from burning. If you agitate it too much, you may reincorporate the solids into the liquid this is the opposite of what you're after, which is the total separation of these two components. It will look remarkably like baby spit-up.*
* I'm deeply apologetic about this visual; I tried my hardest to come up with something more palatable, as kashk really does deserve it. It is truly so delicious, will knock your socks off, and is different from anything else you have tried. Please stay with me.
AJ: There were many moments, but the one I highlighted for today was the one about "soaking your nuts.” I love the fact that you have many asides as footnotes.
In practice, soaking your nuts is much easier than sprouting your nuts.* But even if your almonds do not sprout, do not despair as there will still be notes of tangy whey in your almond butter, making the minimal added effort worth it.
This recipe scales easily, so make as much as you'd like.
*Oh, grow up.
HD: My editor, to her credit, had to take out a lot of soaked nuts references. I just wanted to delight. Making the book was such a personal torment and anguish. And I just think like, That shit’s gotta be funny, or else. I don't need you to weep and cry. The Buddhists say life is suffering, and maybe suffering can be sometimes like a way to connect and be light. I'm just so I'm shocked at some of the things that let me get away with.
We didn't talk about the biscuit recipe, but that is kind of a stand-out to. It’s kind of a cheap shot, and the pancakes are a little bit of a cheap shot. But if the goal is to fire people up, and whey is already too big to think about. So maybe take this thing that's too big to think about and put it in a very accessible recipe like pancakes or biscuits. Those are such delightful big wins for the whey and probably my two favorite bready recipes in the book.
AJ: I feel like this is one of those books that you can kind of enter from either side, as a seasoned yogurt maker who is looking for things to to with their whey, or as a cook who sees all these cool things you can do with whey, who then gets inspired to start making yogurt just to get the whey.
HD: Yeah. Even with White Moustache, I haven't grown in volume since 2020 because I won't make more yogurt if I have more whey. The whey is going to be my driver—I'll make more yogurt if I need more whey. And with this conversation, even if we only impact five people, it's pebble by pebble that you make a difference. So totally that's exactly it, I’m glad that was obvious.