The French may not be aware, but the first residue of cheese was discovered in an Egyptian pot dating back to over 4,000 years ago. But, as with many other things, Europe has done a far better job of growing, celebrating and marketing its cheesemakers than the Middle East.
To rectify this imbalance in my capacity as a lone insignificant consumer, I decided to sample as many cheeses as I could find at the deli of my neighbourhood Arabic speciality supermarket, Douri. And because seven cheeses felt insufficient, I drove over to the Union Coop in Hamriya and bought some more. The next day, I returned for another three.
Before I share what I found, there are some facts you should know. First, I love cheese but am no connoisseur. Quite the contrary, I admit to embarrassingly low standards and am a multiple Kraft cheese offender with cafeteria omelette parathas by the roadside. Second, the cheeses I sampled are those popular on Middle Eastern tables, but not all of them are native to or produced in the region. Cypriot halloumi, Greek and Bulgarian feta and Balkan kashkaval are three such imported cheeses that are now being reproduced in the GCC.
Third, much of my exposure to such cheeses has been at supermarkets. These are industrially produced cheeses usually made with pasteurized milk that is often mixed from multiple dairies for the purpose of scale. Such cheeses fail to unlock flavour complexity attributed to the diet of the animal, microbial miracles in raw milks and the artistry of the cheese-maker. In the words of Harold McGee, the guru of food science, ‘at the beginning of the 21st century, most cheese is an industrial product, an expression not of diverse natural and human particulars, but of the monolithic imperatives of standardisation and efficient mass production’. It’s rather depressing.
But rather than run away from the cheese counter, the solution might lie in our learning to work with what we do have, and over time, seeking out better versions of it. With that in mind, I’ve approached my cheese sampling survey with a very basic consumer-oriented question: How do I eat this?
Most Middle Eastern cheeses are preserved white cheeses that can be eaten plain or paired with tomatoes and cucumbers, a dollop of fig or apricot jam, tea or wedges of cool watermelon. Some of the cheeses live suspended in a strong brine and are unpalatable until boiled or soaked for many hours – do not rule them out after a superficial taste at the deli counter.
Issam, the friendly Syrian assistant at Douri walked me through the range of cheeses I could eat for breakfast: feta (Saudi feta has become omnipresent), herb or chilli-crusted aged shanklish (traditionally made from the yogurt by-product after butter has been skimmed off), mild squeaky globes of Turkish doga, stringy Syrian shillal, white cheese helix, braided jadayel, and briny slabs of akkawi and Nabulsi. The five latter cheeses all have to be plunged in water overnight unless you plan to shock yourself awake with a salt overdose in the morning.
Nabulsi is a massive sticking point for Palestinians. My friend and cookbook author Dima Sharif denounces supermarket versions as a ‘disgrace’ to the real cheese from the city of Nablus. She sells her own version online through her website, dimasharif.com. This real Nabulsi is a hardened cheese made of mixed ewe and goat’s milks in equal proportions, a stark contrast to the softer cow’s milk version found in our delis.
Authentic Nabulsi is perfumed with mastic (pine-flavoured resin gum) and mahlab (bittersweet kernels of the St. Lucie cherry) and repeatedly pressed and salted for preservation. The closest I could find at Douri was sold under a brand from Al Aluk village in Jordan called ‘Farida,’ a mastic-scented goat’s and ewe’s milk Nabulsi cheese that had already been boiled until floppy and tender. This pre-boiling reduces the cheese’s soaking time at home but also its shelf life.
One cheese that is woefully missing at most supermarkets, possibly because Emiratis make it at home or procure them from mothers who sell them, is the native chaami. Typically sold at the old vegetable market in Deira, these sour ricotta-textured curds are best scooped up with sticky-sweet dates.
Then there are the spreadable cheeses, including creamy labneh, shaped labneh balls immersed in olive oil and moist crumbly feta. There are options within each category, such as the traditional Lebanese-style labneh with the prominent sour flavour of yogurt to the cheesier, creamier Turkish labneh that I personally prefer on toast every morning with walnut-stuffed pickled baby eggplants (makdous) and chilli. The Bulgarian sheep’s milk feta at Union Coop was a rich revelation that might soon replace the Turkish labneh on my breakfast toast. It was reminiscent of tart cream and melting butter, the indulgent kind you have seeping out of baklava. The Saudi version pales in comparison.
Other spreadable cheeses included the soapy, medicinal-tasting Egyptian dimyati and a very ripe Old Istanbuly that made me hallucinate about smelly barnyards and bleating goats as I sat perched on my very white Ikea kitchen counter top.
My heart has a special spot for cheeses that can strut off a hot pan wearing a starched golden crust rather than melting into an amorphous puddle. Such cheeses can be propped against salad greens tossed with tart fruit (cranberries, barberries or apples), grain salads (think along the lines of maftoul, couscous or freekeh) and my all-time favourite, runny eggs swaddled in butter.
Halloumi tops the list of flame-hardy cheeses; it withdraws into its own taut body when heated, becoming rather tough and rubbery if you persist over the pan. It’s worth celebrating that we finally have an alternative to store-bought halloumi; Carla Thetford, an artisanal Dubai-based cheese maker, crafts halloumi using goat’s and cow’s milk at Deena Organic Farms. She often grills up slices of her handcrafted cheese at the Bay Avenue farmer’s market and tucks them into a flaky paratha with fresh herbs and relishes for an idyllic Friday breakfast.
Soaked or boiled Nabulsi and akkawi have to be handled with care in the pan, with akkawi (especially the Czech variety) being even more vulnerable to heat than the hardier Nabulsi. Akkawi, the ‘jibneh baida’ (white cheese) that originates in Acre, Palestine, is the versatile mozzarella of the Middle East. It softens diplomatically when heated, and if flipped off the pan early enough, can sit smugly as a final topping over a saucy shakshouka. However faced with more unrelenting flames or a fiery oven, this same akkawi will surrender into spinelessly stretchy ropes. It’s exactly what you need to pull apart a zaatar and cheese manousheh like an accordion.
When it comes to mana’eesh, pizza or grilled cheese sandwiches, kashkaval takes it a step further because what akkawi is to fresh mozzarella, kashkaval is to aged cheddar. When grated over dough, this hard-knock cheese relents into a quivering pool of pale yellow with leaky spots of separated fatty oils.
While kashkaval may be a safe investment for a risk-averse cheese lover, I personally find it somewhat bland and characterless. Egypt has a smelly retort for such insipid cheeses: Roomy. While the pineapple-colored slices of aged roomy are somewhat overbearing, I do appreciate their tangy odorous edge when combined with a cheese more forgiving of my breath. An example in point is the popular Egyptian restaurant Al Ammor, which bakes a flaky pie (fateer) stuffed with cured beef (basturma), peppers, olives, mozzarella and a sprinkling of shredded roomy.
The Middle Eastern equivalent of a creamy Alfredo sauce would be cooking sauces made from low-moisture, rock-hard cheeses like Jordanian jameed and Iranian kashk. Both jameed and kashk are buttermilk cheeses prepared by salting, boiling, straining and dehydrating the residual liquid (aka whey) after churning butter. Qwaider Al Nabulsi in Deira once let me taste their jameed imported from Jordan – it resembled the umami, nutty quality of Parmesan. Reconstituted with water, creamy jameed is splashed generously over slow-cooked lamb, buttery rice and fragile bread for the famous Jordanian Bedouin dish mansaf. Kashk, on the other hand, is bitingly sour, chalky and salty. I am most partial to its indispensable role in Iranian ‘kashk bademjan’ or roasted eggplants mashed to a meaty pulp with walnuts, garlic, onions and kashk. The final dip is garnished with more liquid kashk and mint, and nothing but warm freshly baked sangak or stone-bread, can do it justice.
While the concept of a cheese and fruit platter is not traditional in the Middle East, Arabic pastries and desserts luxuriate in enough cheese and sugar syrup to not just finish your meal, but to serve as your entire meal. Cheese melts its way into puffy filo parcels (shabiyat, warbat or kulaj), rose-scented rolls of clotted cream (halawat al jibin), noodle-encrusted cheese pies (knafeh), folded and fried baby pancakes (qatayef) and ‘spring rolls’ twirled with violently orange noodles (mabrooma).
Purists would claim that the traditional cheese of choice is Nabulsi, its savoury goat and ewe milk flavor offsetting the heady richness of a syrup-doused gooey knafeh. But the common reality is that most households and restaurants rely on a thoroughly washed and de-salted akkawi, with the cheese monger at Douri recommending the Czech akkawi for its improved stretchiness.
If there is anything I yearned for after a week of living off a fridge stocked with 21 varieties of cheese, it was this: Cheese with more handcrafted character and stories of the farms. I felt disconnected from the age-old traditions of the Middle East, the anonymous plastic tubs giving me no indication of where or how my cheese came to be – other than possibly in a sterile factory striving for cheese homogeneity over personality. These orphan cheeses are by no means unpalatable. On the contrary, I will return for seconds of the Bulgarian sheep milk feta at Union Coop and the chilli-crusted Shanklish, Syrian akkawi and Farida Nabulsi at Douri.
But the more I speak to Middle Eastern friends who reminisce about ‘the real jibneh’ back in their hometown decades ago, the more I long for those cheeses with character. Is it time for a cheese revival in the region? Maybe. Maybe we need a small but fighting section in our cheese delis dedicated to premium handcrafted cheeses made on a single farm or a cooperative of farms. Maybe we need more traditional ewe and goat’s raw milk cheeses, because those are the cheeses with opinionated flavors that rise above the neutrality of mixed, pasteurized cow milks. Maybe we need to consider supporting and celebrating timeless techniques and traditions that result in every batch of cheese tasting slightly different.
Maybe our Middle Eastern cheeses would do better with a touch of old, because old is more than gold, old is delicious cheese.
My favourite Arabic cheese – and how I eat it, by some of the UAE’s top foodies
Syrian-German food author, presenter and entrepreneur
Oofff! One only? Jibneh baladi, a soft Lebanese goats’ cheese, with Arabic bread, cucumbers, olive oil, baladi tomatoes and a sprinkle of sumac on the side. This is my idea of a heavenly meal any time of day. It has the perfect texture, and I can eat a seriously alarming amount of it.
Nahla Al Tabbaa
Jordanian-Bangladeshi food curator at Frying Pan Adventures
Kashkawan we eat on a daily basis at home, wrapped in shrak [aka saj] bread and melted with shatta [chilli sauce] and olives in a sandwich maker. It’s so readily available and doesn’t need to be desalted – it’s just a good old ‘melty’ but not an intimidatingly strong cheese. My second choice is my dad’s favourite, sharkasieh, like a ricotta but so creamy and not really tart. It’s so delicious on its own or with something sweet or savoury.
Author of Palestinian cookbook Plated Heirlooms
One cheese for the rest of my life would be Nabulsi cheese. A long shelf life and no refrigeration required means I am in control of supply and always fed no matter what. And it takes me from savoury to dessert, which means stranded on an island, I have so many options! Also it is very nutritious but most importantly, super-delicious.
Sawsan Abu Farha
Palestinian blogger at Chefindisguise.com
Nabulsi cheese is so versatile. When salty, it can be enjoyed for breakfast with pita bread, tomatoes and cucumbers); you can add it to salads (cut it into cubes and use it instead of feta, or grate it); and it is wonderful in pastries. After soaking, mix it with dried mint and use it to make a Middle Eastern grilled cheese sandwich. If you have a sweet tooth then use it to make knafeh. It is sort of an “all you can wish for” cheese!