16
Jan

labneh


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labneh-copy

As I walked through the Ferry Plaza building last time I was in SF, I spotted an ice cream shop selling an intriguing flavour: Lebanese mountain yoghurt. Sounded exciting, and incongruous. I had to have a taste. Sadly, it was just like any other yoghurt ice cream, and not a very good one at that. So, I asked the young girl serving me why Lebanese mountain yoghurt and not simply yoghurt. She hesitated, then she said it was imported from Lebanon and then, as if remembering an important detail, she said that it was actually labneh.

Now, as many of you know, I am fairly familiar with Lebanon and its food and labneh is nothing more than strained yoghurt. It is made in the mountains,  and it is made in the city, at home and commercially. My grandmother made it. My mother made it, and there are still plenty of mountain folk who make it, often from sheep’s or goat’s milk while city folk often use powdered milk to make their yoghurt before straining it to make labneh. However, there is nothing stopping anyone, anywhere in the world, making labneh provided they have yoghurt. In fact, I make my own in London, using St Helen’s Farm goat’s yoghurt.

Those people making the ice cream in SF certainly don’t need to import their labneh from Lebanon, especially not to make such an indifferent ice cream. I walked away thinking that labneh was well on its way to becoming a global ingredient, the way hommus is now a global dip.

We only use it as a savoury ingredient and I remember how my mother used to make us labneh wraps (called bride or ‘aruss in Arabic), as soon as we came back from school using markouk bread (very thin and very large round loaves cooked over a saj, which is like an inverted wok). She mixed the labneh with olive oil seasoning it with a little salt, then spread it over the bread. She arranged a few pitted green olives and fresh mint leaves  in a line down the middle before rolling the bread to make the sandwich. One of my favourites.

Here is how to make your own labneh. Line a colander with a double layer of cheese cloth (or get a cotton sack like the one in the picture above, which I snapped outside a tiny and incredibly primitive beehive house near Palmyra in Syria). Tip 1 kg of the best yoghurt you can buy into the lined colander. Tie the corners  to make a pouch. Hang your pouch over a tap and let drain overnight. Et voila, the next day you will have 1/2 kg of lovely thick labneh which you can use to make ice cream or one of the two dips below. Or you can serve it plain, drizzled with excellent extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with fleur de sel and Aleppo pepper. Labneh is a staple of the Lebanese and Syrian breakfast table.

Labneh bil-Za’tar

Serves 4

300 g labneh

3 tablespoons za’tar (a blend of dried thyme, sumac and sesame seeds unless it is the red Aleppo za’tar in which case it also has fennel, coriander and anise seeds, black sunflower seeds, toasted chickpeas and peanuts (although these are not recommended) and cumin)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for garnish

fine sea salt

toasted sesame seeds for garnish

 

Mix the labneh, za’tar and oil in a mixing bowl. Taste and add salt if necessary – some za’tar mixes can be very salty. Spoon into a serving bowl, making grooves here and there. Drizzle a little olive oil in the grooves. Sprinkle a little toasted sesame seeds all over. Serve with crudités, or pita bread, or pita chips.

@Anissa Helou from Modern Mezze

Kishkeh

This is a classic Syrian dip which you can make with fresh or dried mint. Use the same amount of labneh as in the recipe above but instead of za’tar, use 2 tablespoons fine burghul and 2-3 tablespoons dried mint or a handful of finely chopped fresh mint leaves. Add salt to taste. Mix well. Then transfer to a serving dish, garnish and serve as with the labneh with za’tar.

@Anissa Helou


There is 22 comments on this post


  • Thanks, I just finished some store bought Labneh and was thinking this is probably how you could make some. I’m going to try this soon.


  • yours will be much nicer than the store-bought, especially if you use really good yoghurt.


  • That hanging labneh bag in your photo reminded me of so many things… And yes, I too used to have “aruss bi labhen” after school or to take to school… The first thing my mum prepared for me, as I prepared to leave home and move to London, was a labneh bag. Somehow, for her, as long as I could make labneh, I would be okay. I still have that bag. It has remained with me for many, many years and has now moved to Dubai!


  • how sweet. i love your mother and i can just see her folding the bag and putting it in your suitcase. hope you are using it to make labneh.


  • An evocative piece. I will be off to buy some top line yoghurt tomorrow, and check on our supply of sumac, sesame seeds!


  • hey, i like this edward. will wait to hear back how it all went.


  • I remember being in Cuba for a week a few years ago with a whole bunch of friends, and after a week of eating food that wasn’t excellent (love Cuba but one doesn’t go there for the food unfortunately) we were in the airport waiting for our flight back when one of my friends exclaimed: “yay 3a chi sandwich labneh wo khyar!” and we all shook our heads in agreement! I think more than any other food, labneh to most lebanese people, is the taste of home. When there’s nothing else to eat in the house, or when one doesn’t feel like cooking, you know there’s always some labneh in the fridge.


  • So easy to make, excellent. It seems a bit like paneer in that it’s so much less complex to create than you think it’s going to be. I’m set on trying this out a soon as i can get my hands on some cheese cloth.

    I’ve seen labneh all over the place in London and always thought it was more of a light cream cheese, so it’s interesting to find out it’s strained yoghurt. It makes sense considering how many dips it can be part of. I think I was confused with it being used as filling.


  • yes, it is often wrongly described as cheese but it is not. and as you can see, incredibly simple to make.


  • Labneh ice-cream! Fouad from the Food Blog made Zaatar ice-cream the other day!


  • hmm… interesting. wonder what it tastes like.


  • Labneh bil-za’tar sounds wonderful. Gotta try it.
    The first yogurt I ever had, and of course the first labneh and the first ayran, were in Lebanon, so I think of them all as sour foods and the idea of sweetening them still seems wrong to me, like stringing up fairy lights on the Parthenon.


  • you’ve got to try it. it’s really good. and i like your comparison charles. very amusing.


  • I am reeling that anyone would be importing labneh. How hard is it to hang yoghurt? (Not to mention make the yoghurt at home….)

    We make an Indian sweet, called “srikund”, using drained yoghurt that is mixed with sugar, cardamom and saffron. I love the idea of using drained yoghurt for a savoury dish. We’ve got to try your Labneh bil-Za’tar!! (Za’tar is our new favourite spice mix – just recently learned about it and tried it with pita).


  • well, i am not sure they had actually imported. sounds really daft to me. and i hope you are having your za’tar with pita and oil.


  • Yes, one night not long after the new year, we had made fuhl, grilled eggplant, quasi-tabouleh (using left-over couscous instead of bulghur), beet salad and pita. We decided we had to try the za’tar as well. It’s fabulous.


  • I ate labneh every day for breakfast in Lebanon on a recent trip. I think it was homemade as it was so fresh – served with zaatar and olives. I often use it as a substitute in dips when sour cream is called for. It gives a different flavour but still delicious and much healthier. I didn’t think making it was so simple – thanks for the recipes.


  • you are welcome sally.


  • Dear Anissa, I have been enjoying your books for the last 20 years, or more ! I live in New York after Aleppo and Beirut. Being considered as a very good cook myself, I find great affinity with your recipes.
    One question, I would have liked to ask you :
    What type of Yogurt would you recommend for a good “labanieh” dish. Local yogurt does not have in my opinion enough acidity.
    Thank you and best regards,
    Therese


  • I normally use goat’s yoghurt

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