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.
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
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.