If you have been to Lebanon or the Middle East, you may have tasted the different cheeses on offer. From stretchy, salty akkawi to mild, creamy baladiyeh to riccotta-like qareesheh, cheese is a central and well loved part of our diet. However, you may be lead to believe that our repertoire does not extend past fresh, white cheese. That’s where you’re wrong, sucker!
Enter shankleesh. You have possibly seen the vacuum-wrapped herb-covered ball-shaped curiosities at Middle-Eastern shops and you may have thought, what the? You may have walked by too scared to try something that strange. Allow me to demystify. Shankleesh is the only mold ripened cheese native to the Middle East. It is thought to have originated from Kurdistan, but is now mainly found in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Shankleesh is a compound word derived from the Kurdish ‘shan’, denoting a small terracotta pot; and ‘qareesh’, a Bedouin term for fermented milk.
It is said that you can find the best shankleesh in Rahbeh, Akkar (Lebanon’s most water-rich village- personal joke), but it’s mostly excellent anywhere where they use good milk. To make shankleesh, low fat yoghurt is strained until dry, then salted and strained again overnight. Afterwards the dry yoghurt is shaped into balls that are dried in the sun for a couple of days. Left to mature in air tight containers for a month, the shankleesh allows for the growth of Debaryomyces hanseni and Penicillium mold. This mold is rinsed and then the balls are covered with herbs and spices, mainly thyme and Aleppo pepper. Along with salt, these help inhibit bacterial growth. The result is a pungent, dry, crumbly cheese, full-flavoured and redolent with herbs and spices.
A great website with information on shankleesh is Slow Food Beirut. For some reason their shankleesh page is down, so I’ve found a link to Google’s cache. Have a read for much more in-depth information.
Shankleesh is eaten with diced vegetables and loads of olive oil to balance the pungency and flavour onslaught. Traditionally one adds diced tomatoes, green capsicum and finely diced onions. I’ve added avocado to mine to give it a bit of creaminess. Simply crumble the shankleesh into a bowl, top with diced veggies of choice, add loads of olive oil and enjoy with Lebanese bread, or on top of toasted sourdough.