Middle Eastern marvels: Five ways to use labneh

Try it with everything from breakfast to barbecued meat

Friday, May 24, 2019,
By Manu Canales
Dip with labneh, olive oil and pita bread
Dip with labneh, olive oil and pita bread
Photograph by Getty

Dairy was always an important part of my diet growing up in rural Spain, particularly yoghurt. There’s something special about transforming really fresh milk into something delicious. I’d have it plain, sometimes with sugar — or when my grandfather made it, honey — but always in as big a bowl as possible. When I was 18, I travelled to Turkey for the first time and it was there that I was introduced to labneh — a thick, creamy cheese that’s made from yoghurt and popular in the Middle East. I was blown away.

There are many different recipes for labneh, but the most basic requires you to strain slightly salted yoghurt through a cheesecloth for between 12 and 24 hours to remove the whey. The longer you leave it, the more it thickens. The result is a creamy, elegant texture packed with classic dairy flavour and aroma, but with a hint of nuttiness and sharpness. It’s a refreshing yet also indulgent experience for the palate.

Labneh is incredibly versatile; you can serve it for breakfast, as a dip, or even with a ripe slice of melon on a hot summer’s day. And because it doesn’t split in heat, it can be cooked and baked. It’s a fantastic companion or marinade for grilled meat, and adds a new dimension to breads and tarts.

In the UK, you can source labneh at any Middle Eastern supermarket, where it’s sometimes labelled as ‘Middle Eastern-style yoghurt’. Recently, several British farms have added labneh to their repertoire, so you can often find locally produced versions too.

Five ways

1 Breakfast
I love to start the day with labneh combined with homemade fruit compote and some toasted oats or nuts. Alternatively, top it with honey or pomegranate molasses. It’ll give you a kick of energy.

2 Dip
Tzatziki, also known as cacık or tarator, is a classic dip. Make your own by combining labneh with grated garlic and cucumber. Served with fresh bread, it’s a fantastically simple starter that’s great for sharing.

3 Marinade
The acidity of labneh makes it an important component of marinades as it tenderises the meat before cooking. I usually mix it with spices and rub it onto cubes of chicken or lamb, then let it marinate overnight before grilling.

4 Spread
It’s a great addition to a barbecue. The best way to serve it is to chop up plenty of mint and dill, add it to the labneh, then spread it generously over a warm flatbread. Finally, top the flatbread with grilled meat and pickles.

5 Smoothie
Blitz it up with ripe seasonal fruits — berries work really well, as do tropical fruits like mango or pineapple. I like to keep the smoothie thick, so I don’t dilute it — and if I feel like treating myself I add some cocoa powder.

Manu Canales is head chef at Kebab Queen, London. kebabqueen.com

As published in Issue 5 of National Geographic Traveller Food. 

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