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It's called tsatsiki or tzatziki (and pronounced tzah-ZEE-kee) and it is often the first contact many of us have with Greek cooking. This is the wonderful garlicky yoghurt sauce spread over souvlaki. But tsatsiki is more than a sauce. With a few thick slices of Greek bread and a glass of retsina or white wine, a dish of tsatsiki makes for a delicious summery lunch. Or, for a great combination, try it as a cold thick dip with thin slices of fried eggplant or zucchini. It also pairs so superbly with French fries that you may never ask for mayo or ketchup again.

The recipe for tsatsiki is deceptively simple: usually just yoghurt, salt, garlic and cucumber. Some recipes call for a little mint or pepper; others suggest adding grated onion. But these can give tsatsiki too much of a kick.

There is a balance between the rich but not sweet taste of a good thick Greek style yoghurt, the freshness of grated cucumber and the pungency of garlic. All three of the ingredients need to be fresh and toothsome. Try making this with a thin yoghurt, let's say one having 2% or less butterfat and the tsatsiki tastes bitter, the garlic and salt have overpowered the dish.

Good tsatsiki is thick—you could eat it with a fork. A thinner version would be a sauce and this does work as a meat or chicken marinade but it isn't as satisfying a side dish as tsatsiki.

There are proximate dishes in Turkish or Indian cooking. Compare, for example, raita. This may be tsatsiki's younger, less worldly cousin. Raita is a yoghurt and cucumber dip with spices and flavours attuned to Indian cooking. Raita recipes often call for roasted cumin, freshly ground black pepper or a pinch of cayenne. Raita is meant to be served as a side dish. It is made for spicy curries. This cool, refreshing sauce balances the heat of many Indian dishes. But, as tasty as it is, at its heart, raita is not a substantial dish. It is a condiment without the fortitude of a good tsatsiki.

Tsatsiki is easy enough to make at home; except that most of us don't want to keep large quantities of thick Mediterranean style of yoghurt in the refrigerator. Frankly, this stuff is too good, too rich and has too many calories to be left alone. It is great with honey and, if your home is like mine, it gets eaten far too quickly.

Fortunately, good tsatsiki is sold in most supermarkets. The brands are pretty much the same and, since Montreal is blessed with a substantial and discerning Greek community, the quality is fairly good. However, store bought brands don't compare with the pungency of freshly made tsatsiki that is on the menu in Greek restaurants, any of which should be willing to sell a half-litre or so to go.

© Barry Lazar 2002

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