Tzatziki, cacık or tarator is a dip, soup, or sauce found in the cuisines of Southeast Europe and the Middle East. It is made of salted strained yogurt or diluted yogurt mixed with cucumbers, garlic, salt, olive oil, sometimes with vinegar or lemon juice, and herbs such as dill, mint, parsley, and thyme. It is generally served as a cold appetizer (meze) or a side dish.
Tarator was the name of a dish made of ground walnuts and vinegar in the medieval Ottoman Empire. Dishes of various preparations in the region, including dips, salads, and sauces, acquired the name. In the Levant, taratur is a sauce based on tahini, while in Turkey and the Balkans it came to mean a combination of yogurt and cucumbers, sometimes with walnuts. It has become a traditional part of a meze.
The word tzatziki appeared in English around the mid-20th century as a loanword from Modern Greek (τζατζίκι), which in turn comes from the Turkish word cacık, of obscure or unknown origin. One paper published in the University of Gaziantep Journal of Social Sciences mentions an Armenian origin of the Turkish word as cacıg. However, linguist Sevan Nişanyan, in his dictionary of Turkish etymology, states that the Armenian word cacıχ comes from Turkish or Kurdish. The root is likely related to several words in Western Asian languages. Persian zhazh (ژاژ) refers to various herbs used for cooking. Evliya Çelebi’s 17th-century travelogue, the Seyahatnâme, defined cacıχ (cacıg) as a kind of herb that is added to food. Ahmed Vefik Pasha’s 1876 Ottoman Turkish dictionary defined cacık as an herb salad with yogurt. This remains the most common definition today. The form tarator is found in languages from the Balkans to the Levant and appears to be of Slavic origin, coming from Bulgaria.
The Greek-style tzatziki sauce is typically served as a side with meat dishes; for example, it can be served with spiced chicken and vegetable couscous. It may also be served as part of an assorted meze small plate platter that is traditionally served with the anise-flavored liquor called ouzo. Tzatziki is made of strained yogurt (usually from sheep or goat milk) mixed with cucumbers, garlic, salt, olive oil, and sometimes lemon juice, and dill or mint or parsley. Some variations are made with cattails or purslane, tofu, dill, and seasoned with Vege-sal and either whole allspice or spicebush berries. Purslane is called glistrida in Greek and this may be called glistrida me yiaourti meaning “purslane and yogurt salad” rather than tzatziki. One simple recipe calls for purslane, olive oil, red wine vinegar, and dill. Another is made with purslane, mint, cilantro, parsley and ground coriander, along with the standard yogurt-cucumber base.
Turkish cacık is made by combining a bit of water and yogurt in a deep bowl together with garlic and different combinations of fresh vegetables and herbs. The amount of water used depends on how thick the cook wants the cacık to be—sometimes the dish is served as a cold soup, but it can also be made thicker according to taste. Labneh may be substituted for some of the yogurts. Garlic is crushed in a mortar and pestle together with salt and the cucumbers are either chopped or grated. The crushed garlic, yogurt, and cucumber are combined thoroughly before the dish is garnished with some combination of Aleppo pepper, paprika, sumac or mint. It is especially popular during summer months and may optionally be served with ice. When shredded carrots are added along with the cucumber it is called havuçlu cacık. In Turkey tarator is also called Balkan cacığı and is made with fresh scallions and mint. Other cacık varieties may include shredded radish or chopped red pepper and fresh parsley. Dill can optionally be added as well. Some recipes add fresh basil or a tablespoon of vinegar. One version with basil is made with ground walnuts, hazelnuts, and chopped fresh basil.
Tzatziki Sauce at Istanbul Mediterranean Gyros
Not all cacıks are made with shredded cucumber—sometimes various types of leafy greens or herbs are used in combination with other ingredients. For example, one version calls for boiled wheat berry (the same kind used to make Noah’s Pudding) and fresh dill. It can also be made into a type of salad with purslane. Sometimes it is made with unripe (green) almonds called çağla in Turkish. It may be also made from wild edible plants like çıtlık and eaten in a wrap called dürüm. For cacıklı arap köftesi, kofta made from a mix of bulgur and ground meat is served over cacık. In this case, the cacık is made with chard rather than the usual cucumber. (Spinach or parsley may be substituted for the chard. Some recipes use purslane.) Bulgurlu madımak cacığı is made with cracked wheat, cucumber and a type of knotweed called madımak.