Sunday, May 22, 2011

Intestinal fortitude: The good, the bad and the home-made yogurt

I’ve been a negligent blogger as of late. I’ve got this whole other blog that I actually get paid to write, and that’s been sucking a lot of my creative attention. That and I’m lazy.

But let’s talk about yogurt. One of the things that living in the tropics has done is to make me increasingly aware of the fragility of my own health. Cambodian doctors are more likely to kill you than make you well, many of the medications I’m familiar with aren’t easily available and medical care from a Western-trained doctor is ridiculously expensive. So I’ve started taking vitamins, exercising and eating yogurt in the hopes I won’t need to be airlifted to Bangkok someday.

Why yogurt? It’s great for intestinal health and the flora. Eating it supposedly makes you less susceptible to bad bacteria -- the kind you get from eating gnarly street food. Of course what it doesn’t protect you from is bad yogurt, which I deliberately chose to eat on Monday.

My only explanation is now that I live in a cowboy society without rules, I figured that the laws of science don’t apply to me either. I ate a big helping of yogurt that had gone bad, mixed with a curry to mask the taste, reasoning that since yogurt is basically spoiled anyway, eating a rancid bowl wouldn’t make any difference. I was wrong.

I’m someone that doesn’t have a lot of food hangups. I don’t check to see if vegetables have been washed safely, if ice is from a machine or if the street food vendor has clean fingernails. I just eat whatever looks good and figure that any intestinal distress that comes my way is just the price I pay for deliciousness. I believe that sustained low-level exposure to bacteria has also helped me build up an internal resistance that prevents me from getting sick very often. No so this yogurt.

Suffice to say it was gruesome and the fact that I was quite aware that I had deliberately eaten bad yogurt did not make the next 24 hours of spewing any more bearable. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was as bad as Bolivia, and that’s saying something. It's right up there with Rome and Peru in terms of being one of the great bouts of food poisoning in my life. My first in Asia, in fact.

By Wednesday I was walking again, and the thought of ever eating yogurt again made my legs go wobbly. But screw it, right? There’s nothing that will help one recover from a bout of extreme food poisoning like getting some good healthy bacteria into the old gut. The reason I got sick in the first place was because I ate day-old raita from an Indian takeaway. If it’s reasonably fresh, yogurt should not go bad after a day. But yogurt in Cambodia is never particularly fresh, dated properly, or reasonably priced. So I decided to make it myself.

Apparently making yogurt is actually really easy, which is bizarre because it seems like difficult prairie-woman work, like milking cows and churning butter. And Cambodia is a great place to make one's own yogurt as the daily 95 degree weather is conducive to all sorts of bacterial growth, yogurt included. As part of my now-I-live-in-Cambodia campaign, I bought myself a slow-cooker which has been gathering dust after a chicken feet-stock experiment a few months ago. So I found this recipe on Nourishing Days, bought some starter yogurt from the Bangladeshi market, and made myself a batch.

In Cambodia it is difficult to find plain yogurt. Most yogurt is imported from Thailand and is heavily sweetened. Even the yogurt marked “plain” is sweetened or vanilla-flavored. There’s one dairy that makes actual plain yogurt, but it’s expensive, the containers leak and it always goes off before the sell-by date. I tend to not trust the Bangladeshi because there are not dates involved whatsoever, so I never know if I’ve gotten today’s or last week’s batch.

But my yogurt -- oh it is so fresh and perfect! Despite the fact that I am still sick from the evil yogurt, nothing tastes better than my yogurt. I have been eating it in the mornings with fresh passionfruit and honey and thinking how lucky I am that I have access to passionfruit for next to nothing and enough time on my hands that can do things like make yogurt and worry about intestinal flora. This is the life.