Mediterranean Cooking from the Garden with Linda Dalal Sawaya—Arabic yogurt and cheese making traditions
Cheese and yogurt making were weekly events in our Lebanese kitchen in Los Angeles for our big family. In the 1950s, growing up even in a major city like LA where there were possibly one or two Middle Eastern groceries, and a bakery, the village tradition of making cheeses (jibn and arishe) and laban and labne (yogurt and yogurt cheese) were kept alive. Kept alive, literally, by saving a starter from one batch of laban to the next (roube) to continue the well-developed starter essential to creating fabulous tasting tart laban. That laban was not commonly sold in supermarkets of the day, so it had to be homemade. And the creation process is magical, alchemical.
home made arishe © linda dalal sawaya 2016
I remember the delight of unwrapping the blankets from the crock of laban the morning after to find it set up! So delicious! Not only is the tart, fermented yogurt easier to digest than milk, it is an ancient way of preserving milk, as it keeps longer and is an essential part of Lebanese mounieh, preserving.
home made jibn baladi © linda dalal sawaya 2016
Intriguing conversations long ago with readers of Alice’s Kitchen about how these immigrant women from the Middle East had to make their own roube using bread and milk to sour it. In doing online research on this subject now, I began falling down a rabbit hole of information about how to make yogurt without a culture from another yogurt. The ideas floating through the web range from the outrageous and unappetizing idea of using ant hill soil or ant eggs to the more palatable use of Indian chili pepper stems, bread, chick peas, and beyond, in a seemingly endless, yet fascinating thread on Chowhound spanning eight years and providing error links to Turkish videos on the subject! The word yogurt is Turkish in origin, so those Turkish videos might be credible sources if you can find them.
Debate as to whether the finished product is truly yogurt or not created more controversy in the thread. At this point in my research, in the interest of writing this up, I relinquished the desire to have an ultimate answer to the question. Some day I may experiment with chick peas or chili peppers, but not the ants, thank you very much. I prefer to believe that yogurt in the Middle East evolved by the more commonly told story of milk stored in goat skin bags traveling across the desert that ended up creating yogurt. And I am content to use commercial organic yogurt for starters rather than making my own.
Recent high interest in wild fermentation provides lots of online sources for more information on making yogurt and other fermented food. Their health qualities are not to be underestimated, while being delicious at the same time.
Back to LA: as daily staples on our kitchen table, the yogurt and cheese making custom relied on the then readily available cow milk rather than unavailable village goat or sheep’s milk, which may be more beneficial than cow milk. Even my beloved father made laban occasionally, and all of my elders made the sign of the cross over the heavy ceramic crock full of milk with starter before wrapping it in blankets to bless it.
The simple test of dipping one’s pinky finger into the heated milk to test for the correct temperature is a tried and true method: if you can hold your finger in the milk for the count of ten, it’s the right temperature to add the starter. If the milk is too cold, the starter won’t work; too hot, and the starter will perish.
From the laban, labne is easily made by the addition of a teaspoon of salt to one quart of yogurt. Poured into a cheese bag my sitto made from pure cotton sheets with a drawstring, it is hung over the sink to drain overnight. Collecting the protein-rich whey for use in a variety of ways where liquid is needed such as in cooking rice, making soup, bread, etc. is possible, but not something my elders did, but I do. Labne is a fabulous substitute for cream cheese or sour cream and is used in making lamb meat pies (sfeehas), and is wonderful just on a snippet of bread.
making labne with store bought yogurt and sea salt © linda dalal sawaya 2016
draining labne in cotton bag © linda dalal sawaya 2016
labne is ready! © linda dalal sawaya 2016
Milk is used for making jibn baladi, a basic farmer’s cheese that was also a staple on our table. Mother used rennet tablets and salt in this simple process that anyone can do. Rennet causes the milk to curdle (form curds), which separate from the whey.
rennet tablets crushed with milk for jibn baladi arishe © linda dalal sawaya 2016
making jibn baladi with leftover whey© linda dalal sawaya 2016
The whey can then be made into a ricotta-type cheese called arishe in Arabic. Arishe is used in making sweet desserts such as attayif or kanafe b’jibn. It is also a kitchen table regular along with olives, labne, jibn, and bread; it can be salted or sweetened, as desired.
home made arishe © linda dalal sawaya 2016
I hope that you decide to explore these magical, ancient creations in your kitchen and enjoy them with your friends and families in great health! The full recipes with lots of tips are in Alice’s Kitchen: Traditional Lebanese Cooking. Sahtein!
Remember, as my mother Alice said, “If you make it with love, it will be delicious!”
story and all photos © linda dalal sawaya 2016