Cheese has been a central part of the Middle Eastern diet, not least because it was an easy commodity to come by, as most families raised their own sheep, cows, or goats. That’s why you’ll find cheese incorporated into meals throughout the day, from breakfast (as part of a quick morning spread of bread, jam, eggs, and za’atar) to dessert (as a typical ingredient in pastries).
This book is highly representative of that ingrained love of cheese, as evidenced by my regular calls for labneh, halloumi, or kashkaval. But keep your eyes peeled if you happen upon a Middle Eastern market so you can experiment with some of the other common cheeses below.
Labneh: Made from strained and pressed yogurt (like Greek yogurt but thicker), labneh is creamy, tangy, and spreadable, making it a great alternative to cream cheese.
Kashkaval: Readily found in Middle Eastern groceries, this very mild, yellow, spongy-textured cheese is commonly made from cow’s or sheep’s milk (or both) and is a great melter, which is why you can use it almost interchangeably with Cheddar or mozzarella.
Halloumi: Possibly my favorite cheese, firm and briny halloumi (made from goat’s and sheep’s milk) can be set directly onto a grill, where it gets browned and melty outside while retaining its shape within. It’s also spectacular simply cut into cubes for my Watermelon Salad or grated directly on top of Green Tomato Shakshuka. You can also find aged halloumi, which has been stored in brine for a long time. Just be aware that it’s drier, stronger, and much saltier, and should be soaked in water to reduce the salinity before use.
String cheese: Made with cow’s milk and studded with nigella seeds, this Syrian specialty can be found twisted into braids or coiled into balls. As I’ve mentioned, the traditional way to eat it is shredded into strings and served alongside fresh vegetables and toasted bread, but a friend admits that she’s cut it into cubes and served it poutine-style as a topping for french fries and gravy.
Nabulsi: Highly popular in Palestine, this brined, supple sheep’s milk cheese flavored with nigella seeds and mastic is almost like a cross between Syrian string cheese and durable halloumi, as it holds together when fried in oil. It’s also commonly used in knafeh, a baked, cheese-stuffed phyllo pastry drenched in orange blossom and rose water syrup.
Jibneh arabieh: Though Greek in origin, feta has found its way into Middle Eastern cuisine. This tender white cheese — native to the Persian Gulf area — serves as an authentic (and less salty) substitute.
Ackawi: Hailing from the Acre region of Palestine, this smooth, chewy cheese is unripened and brined, lending it a slightly salty flavor and tender texture that makes it a preferred table cheese for pairing with olives, sliced vegetables, or fruit.
Shanklish: Basically the blue cheese of the Levant, cow’s or sheep’s milk shanklish has a crumbly texture and is rolled into balls before being aged and dried (the longer it sits, the more pungent it becomes). For an extra dose of flavor, the layer of natural mold that develops is removed so the cheese can be coated in herbs and spices such as Aleppo chile or za’atar.
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Cover courtesy of Kyle Books
Excerpted with permission from Levant: New Middle Eastern Cooking from Tanoreen by Rawia Bishara, published by Kyle Books, 2018.