For the love of Yog

We have a (friendly) debate going in our household about which is better, Greek or Turkish yoghurt. Greek is, naturally, but let’s humour the arguments for a minute. Greek is delicious in its rich, creamy thickness, divine drizzled with honey and mixed with fresh summer fruits, and equally scrumptious in what is surely the best cucumber and yoghurt dip in the world, Tzatiki. Turkish is also thick and creamy but has a bit more of a tang, and is cheaper (how do the Turks manage to do always do everything so cheap?). Cheap often wins. But hold your Trojan horses just a second, and enter Labneh. Labneh is Palestine’s and the wider Levant’s dairy chameleon. It can be Greek yoghurt one day, cream cheese the next, and goat’s cheese preserved in chilli oil, on yet another day. You can have it with fruit, on top of your porridge, as a dip or mezza, as a side to go with Musakhan or Maqluba (more on both of those at a later stage). Once you get a taste for it, you will want to put it everywhere (almost).

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Labneh with whatever you fancy

We consumed it on a daily basis in Hebron. There was one shop in particular we always frequented, where endless tubs of different types of labneh, many fresh from the farm, were on display. The shopkeeper, usually with a cheeky smile and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, would advise us which one to go for: that one is too salty; this one is homemade; this one is the most delicious…and he would let us taste and see.

Khan Al Ahmar village

The Bedouin village of Khan Al Ahmar, east of Jerusalem

During my three months in the occupied West Bank, I visited communities for whom making labneh was a way of life and livelihood. They included the Bedouin Jahalin of a small village called Khan Al Ahmar, east of Jerusalem. The Bedouin in the West Bank are nomadic peoples who used to live in the Negev desert in present-day Israel, and became refugees during the 1948 war. Many, like those in Khan Al Ahmar, are now, once again, threatened with imminent displacement. They are situated in a strategic area near one of the largest and expanding Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and, since Israel administers the area (known as Area C), are referred to by the Israeli authorities as ‘unauthorized villages’.*

When I visited with the local EAPPI team just before Easter last year, one of the community leaders was straining labneh. Curious, I asked her how it was done and she explained the process, which began with milking their goats.

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The cute goats of Khan Al Ahmar

Sadly, I now live in a metropolis, and, however lucky we are to have an urban allotment, it doesn’t come with cute goats. But, despair not, as there is a cheat’s way to making delicious labneh. It is so easy you can do it while you brush your teeth at night, and it will be ready in the morning. All you need is some plain yoghurt, salt, a sieve, a bowl, and some cheesecloth or muslin. And if you can’t be bothered to go out of your way to find that, you can recycle/adapt a H&M Conscious fine-weave cotton bag for purpose, like I did.

 

IMG_2657So here goes:

Ingredients:

1 kilo of yoghurt (I used various types of cow’s yoghurt, but plain, non-set is probably the best)

1-2 teaspoons of salt (omit if you prefer something you can eat with fruit for breakfast)

 Equipment

A piece of fine-weave cloth (cheesecloth, muslin, or fine-weave cotton), about the size of a tea towel

Twine

A bowl

A sieve/colander or a wooden spoon

A heavy weight (if making very thick labneh)

 Method

Mix the salt into the yoghurt, if opting for salty version

Put the mix into the cloth, wrap and tie tightly with twine

Then either:

a) Put the cloth into a colander suspended over a bowl, with enough space for the liquid to drain from the yoghurt (apparently the whey is drawn out during this process, but I don’t really know what that means)

or:

b) Suspend the yoghurt parcel over the bowl by tie-ing it to a wooden spoon

Leave for about 12 hours

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What your labneh should look like

If you are going for a creamy plain or salty labneh, with a consistency a bit thicker than Greek yoghurt, you can stop there. Transfer the now ‘cream cheese’ from the cloth into a bowl, and eat with whatever takes your fancy. You can enjoy as part of a Middle Eastern breakfast with cucumbers, tomatoes, boiled eggs, za’atar, and flatbread, or as a side with a main dish, like chicken musakhan.

If you want to take it to the next level, and turn your labneh into pretty little labneh balls covered in za’atar or chilli and chopped nuts, then you need to leave it to strain for a bit longer, around 24 hours. It can help to put a heavy weight over it. It should, by that stage, have a consistency of a soft-ish goat’s cheese.

Then, take small amounts of the labneh in your hand, and roll into balls, approximately 2cm in diameter. Preserve by putting them into an airtight container and covering with olive oil. When the time comes to impress your guests with them, you can dust with za’atar, sumac, nuts, or whatever else your mind conjures up.

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Labneh covered in za’atar. Desert and dairy in one, yum.

And according to this blog, you can actually use the strained liquid for other things. But I haven’t tried that one yet.

*You can watch a short video here about the situation of the Jahalin Bedouin, and take action, raising awareness or asking your political representative to put pressure on Israel to halt the scheduled evictions.

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Smells like the desert

‘What is this? It smells and tastes like the desert’, one of my guests remarked at my marathon Palestinian meal served close to two weeks ago (and whose recipes I still haven’t fully revealed). We all turned to him inquisitively: ‘what does the desert taste like?’ a couple of voices chimed in unison. He went on to explain that it took him back to where he had grown up, in a desert state of the Southern US.

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Looks like the desert. Actually a beautiful landscape near Sebastiya, in the northern West Bank

The French novelist Marcel Proust famously wrote about the power of smell in triggering emotional memory. In my own life, I can testify that one of my most enduring smell-triggered memories is the combined odour of overheating tyres and petrol fumes, which has the unlikely effect of bringing me back to romantic memories of the sun setting on the Arno river in Florence, with sunglasses- and leather jacket-attired Italians screeching by on their mopeds.

For all its toxicity, London produces the occasional pleasant scent. In early January, the scent of pine wafted through certain streets as people admitted that Christmas was over and put their trees out. And just last weekend, I was running with a friend by the lovely canal boats in East London, when on a short inhale of breath, we caught a whisp of that desert scent again.

By now, you are saying to yourself: ‘Dang! Will she just tell us what it is that smells like the desert already’. Well, you are only saying it like that if you are American, which according to my blog stats, is not likely (according to my blog stats, you are most likely to be my parents). I’ll put you out of your misery: that desert scent emanates from none other than that much loved and lauded za’atar mix of wild thyme, sumac and sesame seeds.

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Manakish with za’atar, eaten at my table

After nearly one and a half hours of running, that za’atar smell (which may have been smoldering wood-fire embers, for all we knew) provoked some serious hunger pangs, and an idea formed in my famished brain. I was going to make Palestinian taboon (stone oven) bread covered with za’atar, to recreate the delicious manakish eaten for breakfast in Jerusalem’s old city.

With the dough requiring at least one hour’s rising time, this was no instant hunger fix. But the anticipation and the joy of working with dough kept me going. As I mentioned before, I love kneading. But I struggle with pressing the dough into the required thin, flat, circles. I remember being mildly distressed at a cookery class some friends and I took with Noor Women’s Empowerment Group at the Aida refugee camp in Bethelem, as the dough for some pastries we made kept springing back into its original shape. On this most recent attempt though, I learnt something: you have to be intentional with the dough. Let it know where you are telling it to go. It manifests in just a mild change of force and direction. But it did the trick. Two hours later: delicious fresh flatbread covered with za’atar and olive oil, and eaten with labneh, hummus, or whatever you like.

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Me being intentional with the dough

I made more the next day when some of my Greek family came to brunch, and in a hot dry pan rather than the oven, and it was even better.

Taboon bread

Thanks largely to Amira’s pantry and Pop Palestine

2 cups of all purpose white flour

½ cup of wholewheat flour

2 tbsp of dry yeast

1 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp salt

70 mls of olive oil

1-1.5 cups of warm water

  1. Mix the dry ingredients together
  2. Add the olive oil, and then slowly add the water, kneading until you have a sticky dough (I probably didn’t leave mine sticky enough)

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    How my dough looked. A bit sad at this point.

  3. Line a bowl with olive oil and leave dough to rise, covered by a cloth, for at least an hour. It should double in size
  4. Divide the dough up into 3-5 balls, depending on how big you want your bread. Press each ball into a small, flat, but quite fat, circle with the palm of your hand, and then work this outwards with your fingers until you have a thin circle (as thin as you like, depending on whether you prefer Naan or pita-style thickness). Reach for the rolling pin if it’s getting too frustrating.
  5. Heat a frying pan over a medium-high heat. When it is hot, put the bread in. Cook until brown on each side (about 3 minutes).
  6. Hey presto! Serve covered with za’atar mixed with olive oil. Or whatever you like.

Now, this being the beginning of the Lent season, it seems appropriate to talk about deserts. And intentions. As I embark on it, I am reminded that we cannot live on bread alone. So after this feast of Taboon, I may be going into the wilderness for a while.

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Looking out into the wilderness, near Yanoun in the northern West Bank