Almost every traditional food in the Middle East has a story behind it – and, it turns out, even Arab cheese has its own legend.
It is said that an Arab nomad discovered cheese purely by accident. The story goes that an Arabian merchant put his supply of milk into a pouch made from a sheep’s or a goat’s stomach as he set out on a day’s journey across the desert.
The coagulating enzyme – known as rennin – from the lining of the pouch, combined with the heat of the sun and the galloping motions of his horse, caused the milk to separate into curd and whey.
It’s hard to know what the traveller would have thought of this surprise as he settled in for the night and reached for his milk. However, the whey would have quenched his thirst and the curd, now known as cheese, would have had an interesting flavour and satisfied his hunger.
There is no way of knowing whether or not the story is just a myth, but given that until recently Bedouins made their own versions of cottage cheese, yogurt and butter, there could well be some truth behind it.
One thing is for sure: cheese has become a source of national pride among nations in the Arab world.
“There is just something special about Arab cheeses,” says Noura Al Khoori, a 34-year-old mother of four. “They taste good, are healthy and feel very fresh and light – like homemade.”
Almost daily, the Emirati writer and homemaker puts on her chef’s hat and comes up with a dish that includes the freshest selection of Arab cheeses.
“I like diversity, so I will get Arab cheeses such as akkawi, nabulsi, halloumi, shankleesh, shellal – and whatever others I happen to find,” she says.
Cheese was and remains a staple food in homes across the region, where it is eaten during most meals and as a snack.
While the varieties of Arab cheese are not nearly so numerous and varied as those produced in France – where there are more than 400 – there are about a dozen from the region, including the increasingly popular Saudi feta.
It is even a major part of a popular UAE snack: the chips Oman sandwich, a hot, flaky, fried paratha smothered in processed cheese, and topped with a generous splash of hot sauce and crushed Oman crisps.
Al Khoori’s children – Ayesha 10, Sara 8, Ahmed 6 and one-year-old Omar – eat more Arab cheese varieties than international options.
“For example, I would take a block of Saudi feta cheese, which is creamier and smoother than the Greek one, and I cut them into cubes, chop some tomatoes, fresh mint, pour in olive oil and add some pepper and the dish is ready to be eaten with Arab bread,” she says. “It is delicious and the children love it.”
There are also a few traditional Emirati cheeses. Chami, which is similar to cottage cheese and made from laban (buttermilk), is drizzled with pure cow ghee and eaten with dates.
Another Emirati variety is yigit, a harder cheese made from cow or goat milk. It is strained and turned into dehydrated yogurt, then shaped into balls and stored for many months. It is salty, hard and some people add their own spices to it.
“It is chalky and sour tasting, so I would feel like a mouse biting into it, as it leaves a powder around your mouth,” says Al Khoori. “Fun, cheesy memories.”
Some people take cheese very seriously, such as businessman Hasan Amad, who works in catering and is the vice president of purchasing at Abela and Co.
“A really good cheese bites you back,” says the 62-year-old Canadian-Palestinian. He enjoys cooking for his family. His menu includes traditional Arabic dishes such as kunafa – a cheese pastry soaked in sweet, sugary syrup, which can have the texture of shredded wheat.
“I wait to get the nabulsi cheese from Nablus in Palestine before I make my kunafa for the family,” says the father of two. He pays more than US$200 (Dh734) for 5kg of the cheese, which arrives rolled up and frozen.
“Those you get from the market are rubbery and not as good,” he says.
Amad is also careful to choose the “right” akkawi cheese for hot dishes, including the Arab pizza known as manakish or saj. He takes great care over preparation, for example how to best roast halloumi and other cheeses.
“Cheese is a science, a complex operation,” he says. “The slightest change in preparation changes everything. It is a delicate balance and we take great pride in our cheeses, as they are a reflection of our country’s culture and identity.”
Nabulsi cheese, for example, he says, is made from unboiled goat’s milk. “It is expensive, as the process to make it is longer,” he adds. “Some versions add habat Al baraka [black sesame seed] to it, for extra taste.”
Interestingly, the manufacture and marketing of Arab cheeses has been mastered by a few non-Arab countries, including countries in the Balkans.
“There is a long history and story behind the different cheeses,” says Amad. “Because of the Ottoman Empire and its influences in Europe, the Arab cheese made its way to Europeans, who loved it and mastered it.
“It is a shame that the Arabs don’t know how to mass-produce and market their traditional food properly.”
Malik Al Droby, a supervisor at Feras Aldeyafa Sweets in Al Barsha, Dubai, says that customers of Arab origin are “nationalistic” about their cheese.
“If it is a Palestinian or Jordanian, for example, they check whether we use authentic nabulsi cheese, and if it is a Lebanese customer, they ask for Lebanese halloumi,” says the Syrian, who has been working at the cafe and bakery, which has outlets across the UAE, for almost three years. “A westerner rarely asks what type of cheese we use.
“I have noticed that the women in my family like the really salty ones, such as the braided Syrian shellal cheese.
“The men would eat any cheese put in front of them, and we would all eat it with fresh watermelon or grapes as we drink our tea,” says Al Droby, remembering the eating habits in days gone by back home in Homs, in western Syria.
“We love our cheeses. Every day, we would have some kind of cheese and they would be delivered to our homes by the neighbourhood cheese maker, or someone in the family would make them fresh for everyone.”
While most of Arab cheeses look similar – mostly white with different textures – trying the different varieties and discovering their unique tastes can make for an interesting “savoury adventure”, says Amad.
“Explore the cheeses, explore everything. You may be surprised at what you may find,” he adds.