Christmas Recipe for Human Culture

20 Dec

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Christmas recipe for human culture

Posted Thursday, 20 December 2012

As families prepare to congregate around the Christ child, the carols, the churches, the Christmas trees, and the Santa Claus, there is one other C word that cements them all together: culture.
Families activate traditional recipes to honour, celebrate and top up what has been handed down through generations. But there is one simple recipe that has always intrigued me when making Lebanese yoghurt: culture.

The same word used to describe the same vital process is no coincidence. This age old recipe for sustaining yoghurt culture is more than metaphorical in teaching us about preserving human culture.
The English word culture derives from the Latin word cultura which means to cultivate or till. In sociology, it means to transmit through language and ritual from one generation to the next. In science, it means to grow micro organisms such as bacteria in a nutrient medium under controlled supervised conditions. In yoghurt, the starter culture contains a variety of lactic acids producing thermophillic bacteria.

My grandparents’ generation handed down stories about Lebanese emigrants boarding ships a century ago carrying luggage with one hand and nursing a jar of yoghurt culture or rowbi with the other hand. They would seek favours from the shipping crew to refrigerate the jar so it could be preserved across the sea voyage.

The jar would be protected like a holy grail, containing the DNA of their ancestry, religiously handed down across generations. A century ago, the loss of that edible culture amounted to catastrophic severing of the ancestral culture because it was a living link to their unique family flavour. A child who had accidentally eaten the starter culture from the fridge was accused of culture-cide.

Like a chicken-egg quandary, debates abound about which came first – the culture or the yoghurt. What is not debated is that yoghurt cannot be made without some starter culture from a previous batch. Like human culture, yoghurt cannot be created from scratch – it needs a clone sample from a parent body.

Boiling the milk, whether full cream or skim, enables fermentation. Like human culture, it needs high heat to be borne out of passion and purity.

The boiled milk is then transferred to a heat proof bowl which will become its stable home environment for the duration of its batch life. The milk needs to cool to a tepid temperature. The traditional method for testing this is dipping your pinkie until you can count to ten comfortably – the only time that a human hand touches the mixture like a literal handing down anointment.

Human culture is best preserved if it is passed on in lukewarm moderation, not with hot-blooded cultural chauvinism, nor with cold-blooded cultural cringe, or cool indifference.

The refrigerated jar of culture is opened and the active living bacteria are ready to be embedded.
To prevent any culture shock, it is mixed with some of the tepid milk so it is more fluid and ready to permeate the new host body.

It is stirred in gently so that the DNA imbues its unique flavour, language and rituals.

It is essential that this new mixture can set as it only incubates in a still and warm setting. Like a newborn baby, the mixture must never be rocked or shaken. In some Christian traditions, the mixture is blessed with the sign of the cross before being covered, like tucking a baby to sleep, or preparing for a miracle as the milk transforms to yoghurt. It is covered with a woolen blanket, and kept in one stable location such as the kitchen bench. As it needs about 8 undisturbed hours to set, it is usually safest to leave it overnight so it ferments while we are sleeping.

If opened or moved during this incubation period, the mixture would neither ferment nor cement, but fragment. Like humans, if it lacks consistency as a child, the culture is harder to define.
In the morning, the blanket and lid are carefully removed. Two table spoons are removed from the heart of the yoghurt as the starter culture for the next batch so that the cycle can be repeated and regenerated perpetually. The yoghurt is then transferred to the fridge and ready for human cultural celebrations.

The yoghurt has culture, identity and a solid foundation. It can now transform from mono-cultural which is delicious, to multi-cultural where it can be enhanced with a fruit salad, olives, herbs, as a frozen dessert, as a savoury dip or mixed with a meaty main course.

The significance of yoghurt in Lebanese DNA extends beyond a staple dish in their cultural cuisine. It is the genesis of their country’s name. In many Semitic languages such as Assyrian and Hebrew, variations of the word Laban mean white, which was used to name the perennial snow capped mountain range in Lebanon, as stated over seventy times in the Old Testament. The same word Laban was adopted in Arabic to name yoghurt.

Hence we have come full circle, with some dreaming of a white Christmas, where the cultural celebration is not complete without Laban illuminating the banquet.

The culture not only sustains the generations. It preserves a civilisation.
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