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.


  1. You are a soldier of the food front — I can't believe you ate bad yogurt! Though I likely would do that same, using the same reasoning. (Which I employ regularly with moldy cheese. Oooh, you should make cheese!)

    I'm glad you're starting to feel better, and that you're writing here again.

  2. Back in the 1960s I made my own bad yogurt. It didn't make us sick, just tasted horrible. (And I too ate it anyway, with prunes to mask the rotten-milk taste.) It sounds like you have already become a vastly better yogurt maker than we ever were.

  3. redfacedambiguousMay 24, 2011 at 3:17 PM

    Rancid yogurt with curry??? My lunch is ruined.

    Good for you for embracing the healthful flora. Is goat milk available? That's the kind I like. Sheep milk is even better, but probably not avalable where you are.
    I read kefir is even more beneficial than yogurt, and that you can make it just by mixing one part kefir to three parts kefir in a jar, screwing the lid shut and leaving it for two days. I'm trying that now, one day to go.

    Did you know an average of five pounds of our body weight is BACTERIA?

  4. redfacedambiguousMay 24, 2011 at 3:19 PM

    No, the recipe is one part kefir, three parts milk, left for 48 to 72 hours. It either explodes or tastes good.

  5. i love yogurt i think ill try this out :O)

  6. red faced ambiguousJune 29, 2011 at 5:41 PM

    Please let's have some description of Cambodian medicine!

  7. You can make yoghurt? Word. That actually sounds kind of delicious and wholesome. Is it stinky while it's getting all fermented?

    I am looking forward to more foreign-food adventures, with hopefully less diarrhea on your part. For now I'm just going to experiment with ways to dress up ramen and udon. Post again soon!

    (It is sweet little Brandy by the way, your devoted follower.)

  8. Do you use UHT milk, or go fresh? I've seen varying reports as to whether or not UHT actually works.

  9. Sorry for the delay in writing back, I was in a dengue fugue when this arrived. I use fresh milk because I have heard that UHT doesn't work.

  10. UHT works. Specifically recommended by the maker of my yoghurt-maker (Severin). And yes, making one's own yoghurt rocks.

  11. Sounds yummy. Where is that Bangladeshi market?