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What Is Caspian Sea Yogurt (aka Matsoni)?

Living in Japan means enjoying the food! It is delicious, healthy and . . . not always Japanese. Here's what it's all about.

Caspian Sea yogurt (matsoni) and granola in a Japanese soup bowl.

Caspian Sea yogurt (matsoni) and granola in a Japanese soup bowl.

Caspian Sea Yogurt and Japanese Longevity

The Japanese live longer than other populations, but they aren’t resting on their laurels. Japanese researchers continue to study preventative health and wellness, and the locals have no problem applying the newest findings to their daily lives.

Simple dietary changes are the most popular way to go. Also, they are usually the easiest and most powerful. Everyone is on the lookout for the next miracle superfood.

Caspian Sea yogurt is an excellent example. Originally known as matsoni, it has grown in popularity here in Japan over the past couple decades for its reported health benefits.

Health Benefits of Caspian Sea Yogurt

  • Probiotic, increases healthy intestinal bacteria
  • Easier to digest than cow milk
  • High in nutrients, including protein and calcium
  • Alleviates allergy symptoms

So far, the health benefits of matsoni don't seem much different from those of regular yogurt. But, depending on who you ask, the list goes on. So does it live up to the hype?

Caspian Sea yogurt is not chunky. It is thick and slimy

Caspian Sea yogurt is not chunky. It is thick and slimy

From Eastern Europe to Japan

When it comes to matsoni, there aren't a lot of peer-reviewed scientific studies available in English. This is because Western companies and universities haven't studied it much.

It's more profitable to research new biotech drugs that can be patented—or to research products that the people will keep coming back for, such as cigarettes.

For now, when it comes to the health benefits of matsoni, we have Dr. Yukio Yamori to credit for most of the information we have. Dr. Yamori is a professor and pathologist at Kyoto University who studies longevity in populations around the world.

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During his research in Georgia (the Eastern European country, not the U.S. state), Yamori noticed that the villages of the Caucasus Mountains lived longer than most populations in the world. What caught his attention in particular is that the elderly lived healthier, more active lives—even more so than Japan.

Further investigation by Yamori led him to matsoni: the thick, viscous, fermented yogurt that nearly all the people of that area enjoy to this day. For further study, he brought some back to Japan.

Increasing Popularity in Japan

Matsoni has an interesting history once it reached Japan.

For years, it spread quietly among friends and family because of its health benefits. Later, when health magazines and morning television got a hold of it, they broke the story. The masses were fascinated but couldn't find it at the market. What gives?

When it came to matsoni, food companies in Japan sat on the sidelines. Nobody was in a hurry to sell something that was so easy to make at home. Introducing any product is a big investment. It requires research and development, marketing, production and logistics. All this before a company sees a single yen. It just didn't make sense over the long term.

Eventually, a few companies took a chance. By the time they did, matsoni was already known as "Caspian Sea yogurt," christened such by a Japanese health magazine. Caspian Sea yogurt is what the people asked for and that is what matsoni is known as here in Japan.

To this day, sales are strong and Caspian Sea yogurt is available in every supermarket and convenience store in Japan. Some of the locals buy it at the market, some make it at home and some do both. (I do both.)

No need for a yogurt maker, but we already have one lying around so...

No need for a yogurt maker, but we already have one lying around so...

Caspian Sea Yogurt vs. Regular Yogurt

Here are some of the differences between matsoni and most of the yogurt you'll find at your local market

Caspian Sea YogurtRegular Yogurt

Easy to make at home

Requires a yogurt maker

Homemade is bioactive

Store-bought is most likely dead

Mild acidic flavor

Tart, sour flavor

Thick and slimy

Lumpy with whey liquid on top

Difficult to find in the U.S.

Easy to find in the U.S.

Tips for Caspian Sea Yogurt

  • When it comes to its health claims, take everything with a grain of salt. Although many Japanese swear by Caspian Sea yogurt, these benefits are not well-researched in the West.
  • Making this yogurt at home is idiot-proof, but life happens. If something doesn't seem right (or taste right), trust your instincts. Toss the batch and start over again.
  • This yogurt is not the silver bullet for health. There is no silver bullet. Eat a variety of healthy foods, cut down on the junk, get plenty of exercise and rest, hydrate throughout the day and don't smoke. Do all this and you're way ahead of everyone else!
  • The yogurt is a great way to up your fruit intake. Its mild taste and thickness go well with almost all fruit. Pick up whatever is in season, wash it, cut it and put it in a bowl. Pour some matsoni over it and you're in business!
  • If the yogurt is too mild, add some spices. Spices are a cheap, delicious way to increase antioxidant intake.
  • Interested? Take a chance! Know someone who is? Spread the word!

Have you ever tried matsoni?

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