Yogurt and returning to the comfort foods of home

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"Yogurt forces you to slow down," says Homa Dashtaki, who started White Moustache, named after a prominent feature of her father. Photo courtesy of Homa Dashtaki.

Homa Dashtaki was born on January 31, 1979, the very day that the Ayatollah returned to Tehran, and which marks the beginning of the Iranian Revolution. When her family immigrated to Calif., she worked hard to assimilate, eventually living the American dream with a Cornell Law School education and a six-figure salary. During the recession of 2008, she reconsidered her path and re-embraced the community achieved in the Iranian village where her father was from. The two of them began to make yogurt together, which finally provided a sense of belonging in America. The irony is not lost on Homa. Her book is Yogurt & Whey: Recipes of an Iranian Immigrant Life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: As a teenager you were particularly averse to helping in the kitchen. But as you grew, cooking and food became like tools helping you make sense of your Iranian identity and history. Could you talk a little bit about where you're from and your childhood?

Homa Dashtaki: I grew up in Iran until I was seven. And then we immigrated to the U.S. I think there was this stubbornness, or self rejection of certain parts of myself as I looked towards wanting so desperately to fit in, wanting so desperately to make friends, and wanting so desperately to make sense of myself. A lot of the foods that were comfort foods, that get into your skin and in your bones as a child like yogurt, bread, rice, or kookoo – I turned away from those for a long time. As I grew older, and as life gets more complicated and more real, your body gravitates towards those foods again. And that's how I felt: this thing that had always been in the background coming from my heritage showed up so prominently as an adult. 

You didn't only come from Iran to America as an immigrant, but you're from a particular cultural group in Iran.

My family is of the Iranian Zoroastrianism faith and culture. My parents both originate from Yazd. When we immigrated here, there was the enclave of Iranian Zoroastrians in Westminster, Calif. We joined that group, and they became like family, lifelong acquaintances, and a support system. This is where we grew up, and why we chose Southern California as our home.

Could you talk about the sense of community in your father's village, and whether or not you were from an agrarian background? Or how that agrarian life touched you?

My dad is from an agrarian background. It's his influence heavily that really feeds into my no-waste processing of the yogurt. He came from a place in a culture and an economy where every single thing that had nutritional value was used in some way or another. I think initially, I may have balked at it. Now I find it to be such an ambitious way to look at the world and such an innovative way to see everything as an opportunity, as a food source, as a sustenance. He grew up in an agrarian society that was very arid, and how they had water and access to irrigation – these were things that I saw as a kid constantly. In the summers, we would go back to Iran often. I would just watch it in the background, kind of paying no mind, not knowing the richness of the history and the culture – my own genealogy that I was being witness to.

Eventually ended up in law school and worked your way towards a high-powered career, but became unfulfilled. You write that yogurt forces you to slow down. What were the circumstances that led you to creating your own business and tell us why it became The White Mustache?

It was entirely by accident. I was laid off. At age 35, I ended up living at home with my parents, and I was unemployed, and my dad was retired. His brother (my uncle) had recently passed away. So there was a cloud of grief over our home. I just had an idea to make yogurt. It was the thing that we had been making forever. It was just one single ingredient. I was almost being lazy, and not trying to come up with something more imaginative or exciting. I picked the most basic simple thing I knew we could make. I knew it would take so long – making yogurt takes so long and it's tedious – and it would just give us time to sit and be together.

When we presented this yogurt at farmers markets, it was the people's reaction to the yogurt and the taste of the yogurt that made me realize that we were on to something. Folks were tasting it and like their eyes would light up and they would react to it as if it was like the first time they had eaten yogurt. I realized this food that I took for granted at home that we made so simply and artisanally was in fact different from the way that yogurt is so quickly made and put on shelves at grocery stores.

What’s the origin of the name of your business? 

The name of my business is The White Mustache, and it's named after my father's now-infamous white handlebar mustache.

Tell us about how you jumped back into your legal hat to get the business off the ground and how challenging it was. I hate that you had to leave the state to actually have your business take off. Share that saga. 

In hindsight, things look like destiny. At the time, it was very sad for me to have my business not take off in California. What happened was that after a few months of selling at the farmers markets with my father, we were shut down because California regulations do not allow human hands to touch the dairy while it's in process. So from the moment it gets heated up, to the moment it turns into yogurt, to the moment it's put into jars, it has to be mechanized. And our process was entirely the opposite. It was very human-interactive, it was very labor-intensive. It did involve us getting involved in the process to move it to the fridge, or to let it rest or to make sure it was incubated at the right temperature. 

When we got shut down here, I could have just let it go. I could have let it be easy. I could have moved on to the next thing. But I had found such meaning in this little act of making yogurt with my dad, that I was overcome with grief that it would be taken away from me, and taken away from me for reasons that weren't right. I was making yogurt with milk I was buying in the grocery store –  there could possibly be no risk from a health perspective on why I couldn't make yogurt the way I did. And so a little bit like a crazy person, I went and engaged pro bono counsel over at Kirkland and Ellis in downtown LA. They took the case on and for two years, I wrote drafts with them, went up to Sacramento and advocated for being able to make yogurt the way we wanted to. After two years, it was going to be me or the law, and the law won. So I started looking outside the state for homes for myself, because I just knew I had to do this.

So you head to Brooklyn, because New York has more flexible cottage laws than California, which allowed you to launch a small dairy business there. How did it come to pass that you were able to come back to California and start producing yogurt with Eataly and Century City?

They built me the perfect clean room in the basement of that Eataly Grocery, and I make it right there. I make it with my mom and her cousin, along with me and a small team. We make yogurt in the basement of that Eataly and we bring it right upstairs and stock the shelves.

One of the things that struck me when I first saw your yogurt on the shelf at Eataly was the number of different kinds of plain yogurt you make. Can you describe how European-Greek and Persian-style yogurts differ from one another?

The Greek yogurt that we've come to know on shelves is a strained yogurt – that means that some of the whey is drawn from it. It’s that thick, creamy consistency that you could stand a spoon up in. And there's different ways to achieve that consistency. Most often at home, it's done through straightening out the whey, and that's how we do it as well. A European-style, or what we call Persian-style, still has that whey in it. So it's just pure milk incubated and whisked to perfection. I know many cultures other than the Persians make yogurt the way I do. But also many cultures other than the Greeks strain their yogurt. So I feel there's a little bit of a turf war happening there. But I'm grateful to not have to explain what Greek yogurt is, and that the legwork was done for me by the time we entered the market.

What is the most basic technique for making yogurt at home? How many days is the process?

If you want to make a plain Persian style yogurt, it could be done overnight, and then rest for a 24-hour period. That would be the fastest you could make it. I would boil the milk the night before, I would cool it down to a temperature that you feel comfortable putting your pinky in. Then incubate it with the live probiotics from a previous batch of plain yogurt, wrap it up in a blanket, let it rest overnight, and the milk will turn into yogurt by morning. At which point, I recommend putting that yogurt in the fridge to rest a little bit more. There's very little activity that one has to do except let it just become its most magical version of itself.

That most magical version of itself has a really exceptional texture, extremely smooth. So once it rests in the fridge, If we're eating it unstrained Persian-style, do we need to do anything else to get that texture? 

Whisking. I think that's the secret to what we do is we will whisk the yogurt before we put it into the jars for you.

There have been many articles written on the lakes of whey created by the industrial yogurt complex here in the U.S. What is whey, and what are some of the best uses for it? What’s your philosophy on whey? 

To me, whey is the end result of this magical process. If you want to get a Greek-style yogurt, you will strain your yogurt. That Persian yogurt that we've taken 24 hours to make, you'll strain it in a fine mesh cheesecloth. And what's happening during that straining process is that drop by drop, this pure liquid probiotic rich in calcium, vitamin D, and riboflavin comes out. And to me that's the liquid gold you get at the end of this whole process. The thought that there's pools of it being thrown away to me is crazy. It’s as if we knew what to do with egg yolks and we're tossing out egg whites and didn't know what to do with them. It's just a lack of imagination and intuitiveness and innovation.

Once you've made the yogurt, what do you do with it?

The one thing with the yogurt that I think we do exceptionally well, and I hope that it catches on, is to have it savory. I know a lot of our flavors, or a lot of yogurt is presented as very sweet. But savory yogurt is eaten for lunch and dinner. I've rarely had yogurt for breakfast. It's mostly with a big meal at lunch or dinner and it's treated like a condiment. A third of my plate would be filled with yogurt – it would be rice as a third, stew as another third, and then yogurt as another third, providing a lot of texture, a lot of coolness. So a different temperature in your mouth.

Aash-E-Maast (Yogurt Stew)

Serves 10; makes about 5 quarts

Yogurt and rice are a staple pairing in Iranian comfort food. This homey stew incorporates both, plus herbs, and is an excellent way to use up leftover and/or imperfect versions of all three ingredients. Broken or dulled rice grains, tough or bruised herbs, and unevenly textured yogurt when combined here will still make a perfect pot of stew. The joy of this recipe is in its chaos, and it’s very forgiving.

Yogurt is the most important element here, though it’s added at the last moment. It’s especially important to use unstrained yogurt in this recipe. Do not substitute Greek yogurt, as it will make the stew too thick.

The second most important factor is time. You can take a lot of liberties with the quantity of herbs or rice or whatever you are trying to use up, but the timing is crucial because that is what gives this soup its thick, porridge-​like consistency. Note that you will need to plan ahead: The chickpeas need to soak for 4 hours before cooking, and the stew simmers for 90 minutes.

In this stew, the rice isn’t meant to be too discernible; it simply gives the stew a nice thickness. Use long-​grain rice; while even broken grains are fine, avoid risotto-​style rice and Japanese sushi rice as both will be too firm.

In addition to the fresh leafy herbs listed below, this stew welcomes adding any combination of other tender-leafed herbs and greens, including spinach, green onions, fenugreek, tarreh, and standard leeks. When preparing your herbs, do not discard their stems, even if they’re woody; the point of Persian stews is to boil otherwise tough ingredients down into tender morsels. Finely chop the stems and proceed with confidence.

This stew is fun to make and, with at least one other person in the kitchen, a bit of a dance.


  • 1 cup dried chickpeas
  • 2 cups long-​grain white rice
  • 1 bunch parsley (2 to 3 cups loosely packed stems and leaves)
  • 1 bunch cilantro (about 2 cups loosely packed stems and leaves)
  • 1/2 bunch dill (about 1 cup loosely packed stems and fronds)
  • 1/4 bunch mint (about 1/4 cup loosely packed stems and leaves)
  • 2 quarts plain whole milk yogurt
  • 3 tablespoons plus 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 medium yellow onions, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
  • 1/2 cup dried mint


  1. Here’s how we make this stew on a typical evening in the Dashtaki household. The division of roles and responsibilities rarely varies, so the scene plays out the same each time. Be aware that the number one frustration of ever eating over at my place is that we run late; even if we are on time we are late. (That’s why we serve the good liquor.)
  2. Put the chickpeas in a medium bowl. Cover with several inches of cool water and leave to soak for about 4 hours.
  3. When you’ve got 1 hour left for the chickpeas to finish soaking, put the rice in a separate medium bowl and cover with several inches of cool water. Leave in the soaking water until directed in the recipe.
  4. Sound the alarms that we’re starting to cook! Bring 4 quarts water to a boil in a large (ideally 8-​quart capacity) pot.
  5. Drain the chickpeas, add them to the boiling water with a pinch of salt, return the water to a boil, and simmer over medium-​high heat until tender, about 1 hour.
  6. Wash the fresh herbs and set aside to dry (see page 30 for instructions). Remove the yogurt from the fridge so it has time to come up to room temperature.
  7. Heat the 3 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté, stirring frequently, until moderately browned, 15 to 20 minutes.
  8. While you’re at it, check the chickpeas. They should be almost fully cooked. (There is little risk of overcooking them, and the stock they give off makes the aash’s texture silky. Keep cooking!)
  9. Reduce the heat under the skillet slightly and add the garlic, salt, pepper, and turmeric to the onions. Cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant and a bit dry, about 1 minute. Remove the skillet from the heat.
  10. Chop the herbs and any other tender-​leafed greens that you washed and dried earlier. Run an extra chop over any hardy stems.
  11. When you’re sure the chickpeas are tender, drain the rice and add it to the chickpeas. The rice will thicken the stew as it cooks.
  12. Cook for 15 minutes, then add all the herbs. Continue cooking until the starches in the rice release and make the broth sticky and thick, and the bubbles on the surface become more visibly viscous, about 10 minutes longer, stirring frequently so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. You’ll know you’re ready to move on when the light, bright bursts of bubbles give way to thick, syrupy burps at the top of the water line.
  13. Reduce the heat to low and add the onion mixture to the pot. Simmer gently, stirring frequently as you don’t want the thickening stew to settle on the bottom of the pot and burn, about 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adding some salt and pepper, if you like. (You’ll have another chance to correct the seasoning at the end.) Remove from the heat. Cover to keep warm.
  14. Heat the 3⁄4 cup oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the dried mint. Fry for only a few seconds, as dried mint burns quickly. Quickly transfer the mint oil to a heat-​resistant bowl to stop the cooking. The infused dark green oil will smell deeply aromatic and earthy. You’ll use it shortly. Hang tight!
  15. By 9:20 the stew will be super thick. Keep it over low heat and keep stirring.
  16. Wash a few dishes to get ahead of the game. Set the table.
  17. AASH IS READY! Pour the stew into a large serving bowl and stir in the yogurt. This will make it the ​correct—​looser—​consistency. Adjust the salt and pepper to taste one last time, if necessary. Drizzle about half the minty oil over the top. Put the rest of the minty oil in a small dish for folks to drizzle on top of their own bowls of stew.
  18. Serve and enjoy! 

**Plan ahead! Allow 4 hours for the chickpeas to soak.

**This stew will last for 1 week in the refrigerator. To reheat, add a touch of water and warm gently in the microwave or on the stovetop over low heat, stirring occasionally.

Excerpted from “Yogurt & Whey: Recipes of an Iranian Immigrant Life” by Homa Dashtaki. Copyright © 2023 by Homa Dashtaki. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

“Yogurt & Whey: Recipes of an Iranian Immigrant Life” shares the story of assimilation, recalibrating a career, and a return to the comfort foods of home. Photo by W.W. Norton & Company.