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).
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.
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.
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.
So here goes:
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)
A piece of fine-weave cloth (cheesecloth, muslin, or fine-weave cotton), about the size of a tea towel
A sieve/colander or a wooden spoon
A heavy weight (if making very thick labneh)
Mix the salt into the yoghurt, if opting for salty version
Put the mix into the cloth, wrap and tie tightly with twine
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)
b) Suspend the yoghurt parcel over the bowl by tie-ing it to a wooden spoon
Leave for about 12 hours
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.
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.