A legendary story has it that cheese was ‘discovered’ by an unknown Arab nomad. He is said to have filled a saddlebag with milk to sustain him on a journey across the desert on horseback. After several hours of riding, he discovered that the milk had separated into curds and whey because the saddlebag, which was made from the stomach of a young animal, contained a coagulating enzyme known as rennet. In fact, this process may well have been first discovered by the nomads of Central Asia.
Cheese and the Middle East have a long history. Egyptian tomb murals of 2000 BCE show butter and cheese being made, and other murals show milk being stored in skin bags suspended from poles demonstrating knowledge of dairy husbandry at that time.
Dairy production thus gradually evolved from two main streams. The first was the liquid fermented milk such as yoghurt. The second, through allowing the milk to acidify to form curds and whey, which could then be drained either through perforated earthenware bowls or through woven reed baskets, was cheese.
Two of the main differences between European and Middle Eastern cheese are shelf-life and colour. The majority of European and American cheeses are yellow or orange in colour. The deepest naturally yellow cheeses are typically those made from the milk of grass-fed cows fed on a diet rich in beta carotene, a pigmentation agent which makes the golden tones. Yellow colouration in cheese also develops over time, so while a fresh cow milk cheese may look cream coloured, the yellow tint will deepen and be much more apparent in the aged cheeses of the European variety. Many of the yellow cheeses may also be dyed to mimic spring and summer milk, which was yellow and richer in fat and flavour. Farmhouse cheeses have no added carotene.
In the Middle East the poor pasture available to the milk-bearing animals, the hotter climate and the poor cooling capabilities of the local cheesemakers led to the popularisation of simple, fresh cheeses and cream products which are white or cream in colour. Goat’s milk also lacks beta carotene as any that the goat takes in converts instantly into Vitamin A, which has no colour. Consequently, no matter how much it is aged, it will always retain its brilliant white appearance.
Ackawi Ackawi is a cheese made from cow’s milk, originating in Palestine. It is hard and crumbly and may need soaking in several changes of water to remove the excess salt. When cooked it melts in a similar way to mozzarella with a soft and stringy consistency. Ackawi is a great cheese to eat by itself or paired with a variety of fruit. It is also a major ingredient of the Palestinian dessert kunafa (see recipe).
Feta Cheese Feta cheese is easily one of the most popular types of cheese used in Middle Eastern cooking. It is usually made from sheep’s or goat’s milk and is extremely versatile. In Middle Eastern food, it is used in everything from salads to desserts, or perfectly edible on its own.
Jibneh Arabieh This simple cheese is found all over the Middle East. It is particularly popular in Egypt and the Arabian Gulf area. Originally made using goat’s or sheep’s milk, it is now typically made with cow’s milk. The cheese has an open texture, a mild taste, and is widely used in cooking and snacking.
Labneh A soft, cream cheese made from strained yoghurt. Labneh is easy to make and low in calories, making it the perfect alternative to traditional cream cheese. Labneh can be used just as you would normally use cream cheese, as a spread on bagels or a dip for your favourite fruit and vegetables. Preserved labneh is simply regular labneh drained a few days longer until very little moisture remains. It is then made into small balls, put in jars and soaked in extra virgin olive oil with the additional herbs. Once opened keep it in the fridge to preserve its freshness.
Nabulsi Cheese Nabulsi cheese is a semi-hard brined cheese typically made from sheep’s or goat’s milk. It is commonly found in Palestine and the surrounding areas. It is traditionally flavoured with mahlab (prunus mahaleb) and mastic (pistacia lentiscus) added to the boiling brine with the addition of the peppery tasting nigella seeds (habbat al barakah) to the cheese itself. It can be eaten fresh as a salty table cheese or baked.
Halloumi The perfect Middle Eastern cheese for grilling, halloumi is produced as a mixture of goat’s and sheep’s milk. As the cheese can be fried or grilled, due to its high melting point, halloumi is often paired with grilled vegetables and as an addition to salads. It can be served plain with fruit, particularly watermelon.
Shanklish Shanklish is a cheese common to Syria and Lebanon and made from sheep’s or cow’s milk. The most common use of the cheese is to form it into large balls, allowing it to dry and age. Thyme is used as the main ingredient in making a herbal covering for the cheese. It can be eaten fresh or aged. If fresh, the taste will be mild with a soft texture, while an aged shanklish will be harder and have a pungent odour. Shanklish can be eaten as it is with a piece of bread and some olive oil with tomato, cucumber and mint leaves on the side or add it to a simple salad.
Important Note: This article has been extracted from the Marhaba Dining Guide.
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