Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce: Cacik or Tzatziki

Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce: Cacik or Tzatziki

The cooling combination of cucumber with yogurt for a sauce or soup is quite ancient.

Yogurt is an old method for preserving fresh milk, at least for a while, in warm climates, and was particularly valuable before the advent of refrigeration. Yogurt making is traditional throughout Central Asia, and it was almost certainly brought to the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe by the Turks.

The Turkish name for cucumber-yogurt sauce is “cacik” (pronounced ja-JEEK), a name not familiar to most Americans. But the Hellenized version of the Turkish name is “tzatziki,” which is much more common here since the sauce and their name for it were introduced by Greek immigrants. A very similar cucumber-yogurt condiment in Indian cooking is “raita,” which is also becoming familiar to Americans.

In any case, cucumber-yogurt sauce is delightful and refreshing. Numerous versions exist, such as using either cows’ milk yogurt (more Turkish) or sheep’s milk yogurt (traditionally Greek), using the usual consistency of yogurt or thickening it (by straining through cheesecloth), adding garlic, using dill or mint or cilantro, and topping with olive oil and/or “sumac,” a deep-red, lemon-flavored spice from the Middle East.

Here’s the Middle Eastern sauce as I learned to make it from Turkish chef friends. Though they spoke Turkish, from schooling, they were ethnic Kurds and spoke Kurdish in their families. Their word for the sauce was pronounced “jajook,” to make the name game even more complicated.

At our restaurant, Donderos’ Kitchen, we call it cacik (“jajeek”) and serve it on falafel wraps and with kebabs and pilaf rice.

The recipe makes enough for serving with food for six to eight people. Leftovers keep well in the refrigerator for 4-5 days.

1 medium cucumber
2 cups (16 ounces) plain whole-milk yogurt* (Greek style is especially good for this)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 small clove garlic, finely minced
2 teaspoons snipped fresh dill (or substitute mint or cilantro)
Lemon juice to make mixture slightly tangy
1 tablespoon olive oil

Peel cucumber only if skin is tough or waxed. Quarter it lengthwise and remove seed section, if seeds are developed. Grate the cucumber coarsely and squeeze out much of the juice.

Mix cucumber with the yogurt and salt. Let sit at least15 minutes. Mix, taste and add salt, if desired. Stir in the dill and add a little lemon juice, to taste, plus the olive oil.

When serving, optionally sprinkle with sumac (from Middle Eastern or gourmet groceries) or paprika, plus finely minced dill.

*Note: If making this as an appetizer (but not for making a sauce), before adding other ingredients, place yogurt in clean thin cloth (like a cloth napkin or handkerchief) and hang up to drain at least half an hour.

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