Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Open any Persian restaurant menu in the Western world and you are sure to find māst-o-khiār. This popular Persian yogurt and cucumber dish is versatile, serving many roles on the table, from a starter to an accompaniment for rice and grilled meats, or even as a dip. A Persian sofreh—the physical table setting, and the people gathered around it for a meal—is unthinkable without a bowl of some kind of yogurt-based accompaniment, and māst-o-khiār is arguably the most popular among them. 

The combination of plain yogurt and finely diced or shredded fresh cucumber is simple and easy to put together yet produces an exciting contrast of flavors (sharp, tangy, and refreshing) and textures (creamy and crunchy) all in one bit. 

It’s a winning combination—just look at how many iterations of yogurt mixed with fresh cucumbers exist throughout the Middle East, and Central Asia, and southeastern Europe: Greek tzatziki, Turkish cacik, Bulgarian tarator, Indian raita, and Iraqi jajeek, just to name a few. While these yogurt-based, sauce-like dishes have many similarities, here I will speak to the unique characteristics and history of māst-o-khiār. 

History of Māst-o-Khiār

Māst-o-khiār is a member of a large family of Persian side-dishes called borāni that are made from a mixture of yogurt (drained or undrained), raw or cooked vegetables, and a few simple seasonings. Their popularity stems from the fact that they are simple, quick to prepare, nourishing, and able to serve multiple needs. 

Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

The word borāni is thought to have originated in the ancient Persian Sassanian dynasty, around 630 CE. The queen of Iran at the time, Poorānkokht, was known for her love of yogurt. The royal chefs created a variety of yogurt dishes for her, which became known as “poorani” after the queen herself. After the Arab conquests of Iran, since the letter “p” did not exist in the Arabic alphabet, the name of the dishes evolved to its current version.

The Main Ingredients in Māst-o-Khiār

This simple recipe consists of just two main ingredients—cucumber and yogurt—so the selection and treatment of these ingredients is critical for this recipe’s success.

Cucumber: To dice or shred? That is the question, and in my experience and research there is no consensus among Persian cooks. Some swear by a small dice while others strongly prefer the texture of the cucumber when shredded or grated. Based on having made thousands of batches over several decades, I have found that it simply comes down to personal preference. Whether the cucumber is diced or shredded, both versions will have a comparable flavor and creaminess. Of course there are some expected differences in texture—your tongue feeling tiny cubes of crunchy cucumber versus longer and thinner strands of it, but the main difference comes down to the time it takes to prep a dice compared to shredding.

For me, it takes a bit longer to finely dice than relying on a box grater or food processor to do the bulk of the labor for me. So if I am making a double- or triple-batch (which I often do since this stores so well and pairs well with almost everything), I’ll use the large holes of a box grater or the shredding disk attachment with my food processor. My personal favorite, however, is half grated and half diced—it’s the best of all textural worlds.

Whether diced or shredded, just make sure to use a thin-skinned cucumber such as Persion or English cucumbers with relatively few seeds compared to other types of cucumbers. If you do end up using a thicker-skinned and seedier cucumber (think Kirby or American), I recommend dicing the cucumber, as shredding will release too much liquid and require an extra straining step.

Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Yogurt: You can use regular (undrained) yogurt or drained “Greek” (drained) yogurt. The drained yogurt will give you a thicker māst-o-khiār perfect to be used as an appetizer or a dip, while regular undrained yogurt will give you a thinner, more pourable version that works well as an accompaniment spooned over rice or grilled meat.

And while a full-fat yogurt will of course result in a richer māst-o-khiār than a reduced-fat one, what’s more important f is the yogurt’s flavor. Tanginess is key here. The tangier the yogurt, the tastier your māst-o-khiār. Traditional Persian yogurt is tangier than most yogurt types found in U.S. supermarkets, so you’ll need to make a point of finding a tangier yogurt. If you have access to Persian, Mideastern, or Mediterranean markets, you’ll be able to find the right yogurt. In North America, look for such brands as White Moustache, Damavand, Abali, Sadaf, and Karoun. If you live in the United Kingdom, look for brands like Alwand, Abali, Naz, Pegah, or Diba. Another option if you have the time and dedication is to make your own homemade yogurt, and  increase the fermentation period by 8 hours for a properly tangy Persian-style yogurt.

Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Variations of Māst-o-Khiār

As is common with simple and versatile recipes, there are many māst-o-khiār variations that are often based on family or regional preferences. One popular variation involves the addition of six finely diced or crushed cloves of garlic. Just be prepared for the garlicky punch with this version. Another great option for allium lovers is to add your preferred amount of finely chopped red onion to the yogurt mixture. Or, add more texture with chopped fresh tomatoes (my father’s favorite version).

The Persian cold soup āb-doogh-khiār is a popular summer dish that is made by diluting māst-o-khiār with icy cold water and adding raisins, chopped walnuts, and additional herbs such as dill and cilantro. It makes a perfect summertime lunch with crushed dried Lavash bread (or crushed dried pita or crackers) added to each bowl right before eating.

How to Serve Māst-o-Khiār

No matter how it is prepared, māst-o-khiār should be served family-style, in a single large bowl for family and guests to scoop into. If serving it as a dip or as a formal appetizer, Persians enjoy it with a basket of Persian flatbread (e.g., lavāsh, sangak, tāftoon, babari) or another flatbread such as pita will also work.

Serious East / Nader Mehravari

Whether spooned over succulent meat and fluffy rice for dinner, or scooped onto a flatbread to start a meal, there is no wrong way to enjoy this Persian yogurt and cucumber dish. 

Dice the peeled cucumber into 1/4-inch (0.5cm) pieces. Alternatively, shred the cucumber on the large holes of a box grater.

Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the cucumber, yogurt, mint, and pepper. Season with salt to taste. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with additional mint for garnish, if desired. Serve.

Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Notes

English cucumber may be substituted for Persian cucumber with an equal amount by weight. Information on how to dice cucumbers can be found here.

Regular (undrained) yogurt or Greek (drained) yogurt will both work in this recipe. The drained yogurt will produce a thicker māst-o-khiār perfect as an appetizer or a dip. Regular undrained yogurt will make a thinner and more pourable māst-o-khiār that is great served as an accompaniment to a rice dish or grilled meat. You can use full- or partial-fat yogurt; keep in mind that full-fat yogurt will produce a richer result, but more important than anything is to use an appropriately tangy yogurt if at all possible (see headnote for more guidance on yogurt type).

Make Sure to use dried spearmint, and not dried peppermint for this recipe.

When it comes to the amount of cucumber and yogurt, māst-o-khiār is a very flexible recipe in the sense that you do not need to be exact.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Māst-o-khiār always tastes better the day after it has been made. Simply store it in a covered container in the refrigerator. 

If you do make it a day ahead of time, and want to increase its natural tanginess, leave it in a covered container on your kitchen counter at room temperature overnight before transferring the container to your refrigerator. The yogurt will naturally ferment a bit more.

Māst-o-khiār keeps very well: Store any leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 10 days. I almost always make a double batch.

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