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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Lebneh and Lebanese Cuisine

Low-lactose products were first made in the Middle East, where, no coincidence, herding and milking of animals began. To keep the dairy products from spoiling in the heat, they were often "soured" or acidified, by using bacterial cultures to turn the lactose into lactic acid.

Rami Zurayk of tells us more about these products in the course of a fascinating article about Lebanese cuisine.

The processing of milk first started in the Middle East for the purposes of preserving it for long periods of time. Milk yields different products with increasing shelf lives: fresh milk yields yoghurt (laban) then labneh, then cheese. Milk can also be further processed into drier cheeses such as shankleesh. Labneh, since it contains less water, represents a later stage of processing than yoghurt.

Labneh is characterized by its white/cream color and its soft and smooth paste. It is easily spreadable and has a clean and slightly acidic flavor. In households throughout Lebanon, labneh is consumed on a daily basis. It is most commonly eaten fresh drizzled with olive oil and scooped with pieces of pita bread. It is also used as a filling for sandwiches.

Labneh can be made from cow, goat or sheep milk. It contains around 10% fat, 10 % protein, 5 % lactose, 15 % milk solids, and 25-35 % total solids. It has a pH ranging from 3.5-4 (Bodyfelt, 1988).Good quality labneh requires a starter culture consisting of strains of Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus. These bacteria are crucial to a fermentation process that transforms lactose to lactic acid and thus makes labneh more tolerable to lactose-intolerant consumers.

Shankleesh is the only mold-ripened cheese native to the Middle East. It is believed to be of Kurdish origin. Shankleesh is essentially concentrated, skimmed milk yoghurt which is hand-molded and given a smooth outer surface, then ripened and coated with thyme and other herbs. It can be consumed after ripening for a couple of days or it can be stored in containers (traditionally clay jars) at ambient temperature. It will then be colonized by yeasts including Debaryomyces hanseni and Penicillum. It is this development of this micro-flora that gives shankleesh its distinctive taste and increases its shelf life while decreasing the risk of contamination by pathogenic organisms. High salt and low moisture content also contribute to the preservative effect. This was especially important under conditions where refrigeration was not available.

Shankleesh can be made from cow, sheep or goat milk. The type of milk will affect the taste of the final product. Milk is fermented into yoghurt, which is then shaken to extract the ghee. The remaining protein rich liquid is heated until it solidifies. The coagulum is then salted and hand-molded into fist-sized balls. It is sun-dried and then fermented in a clay pot for a month. The resulting product has a moderately pungent and somewhat musty flavor with a perceptible bitter note. It is also naturally very low in fats (around 5%) and constitutes a very healthy source of proteins and calcium. Shankleesh is usually eaten as an appetizer (mezzeh) broken into small pieces, mixed with finely cut onions, tomatoes and green peppers and drenched in olive oil.

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