و جات به إلى بياع و اشترت منه الة السكريات فيه كلما تحتاج اليه من العصفور المالح و زيتون مغشوخ و زيتون مكلس و طرخون و قنبريس و جبن شامي و مخللات محلا و غير محلا
“Stopping in at the grocer’s, she bought every sort of delectable thing she might need: cracked olives for snacking & Syrian olives for breakfasting, tarragon, tart yogurt & Syrian cheese, and assorted sweet & savory pickles…”*
The passage above is taken from a shopping list in a 14th-century manuscript of A Thousand and One Nights. The setting of the story (and the shopping trip) is Abbasid Baghdad, though some scholars claim its details and products more accurately reflect those of Mamluk Cairo. Either way, the list is a delight to read and I’ve spent more than a few hours poring over its contents and writing about them. The stop described above is just one of many: along the way, the shopper also picks up all sorts of fruits, flowers, scented waters…the list, literally, goes on.
Lately I’ve been sympathizing with the Lady Shopper of the tale, particularly when it comes to that tart yogurt and Syrian cheese. You see, lebneh, a strained dairy product that falls somewhere between yogurt and soft cheese, was my go-to superfood in Lebanon and Jordan, and I’m a bit lost without it. It’s very much a Bilad al-Sham sort of thing, with no place in Egyptian cuisine.
As a result, the lebneh in Cairo is, well, sad. None of it’s locally made, so it’s just some European company’s attempt at lebneh, which is really not the same at all. It lacks the natural simple tart dreamy creamy quality that goes perfectly with a little zaatar and olive oil, or a drop of honey, any time of day (imagine Greek yogurt, but smoother and richer)…and unlike the Lady Shopper of so many centuries ago, despite my best attempts to follow leads up and down Soliman Gohar and my hopeful attempts at every single brand on supermarket shelves here, I have been utterly lebneh-less for months.
So I called in the cavalry, asking all my friends with roots in the Sham to advise me (well, really, have their mothers advise me. Let’s be honest) about how to go about making my own lebneh. The result is a happy delight. It’s easy and fun. And highly recommended.
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Made with love, far from home
h/t: This method is a composite of advice and tips from various sources & people, as well as some practicalities based on the equipment I had around, but the core of the experimentation came from my friend Nour‘s mom’s excellent advice.
You will need:
1 teaspoon of salt
Half a kilo of plain whole yogurt (yogurt is sold by the kilo here, but I imagine the amount I used to be roughly equivalent to one of the standard large-sized yogurt containers in the US)
2 heaping tablespoons of dried herbs (optional: I made a batch with zaatar and another with sage. You could also add honey, saffron, hot pepper, or really any spice or herb you desire. Now that I look at that shopping list, I suppose my next batch should be with tarragon, if I can manage to find it in Cairo)
Equipment: either a fine mesh strainer and strong paper towels or a cheesecloth, wooden spoon, and tall pitcher (a blender works in a pinch).
You can get creative with the cheesecloth, too – I didn’t have one but I did have this cool thin bamboo fiber travel towel that my dad gave me years ago, imagining “it would be useful on your travels someday.” Boy was he right.
First, mix your salt, yogurt, and desired herbs/spices in a mixing bowl. Stir it very well till everything is well-blended and smooth.
Next, either pour the yogurt over the paper towel that’s over the strainer (which you’ll want to set over a sink or other dish, as it’ll be draining for a while), or pour it out onto the cheesecloth and twist/tie the four corners together as though you are Huck Finn packing your belongings into a bandanna to run away. Suspend over a pitcher or other container with a wooden spoon.
Next you just play the waiting game. You can certainly just strain it till your desired consistency, though in case you’re not sure what it is you desire (and you wouldn’t be alone in this) I’ve found a few good rules of thumb: 1) strain for the length of one Skype call with your best friend; 2) strain until the yogurt is solid/dry enough to pull away from the cheesecloth or paper towel without sticking.
At that point all you have to do is scrape it out and pop it into a jar or tupperware. You can do all sorts of things with it: spread it on toast with honey or olive oil, mix a bit into salad dressing, dollop it onto a savory soup, add some to your pasta sauce for extra richness, etc…or you could do the best thing of all, which is to simply devour it plain with a good piece of fresh bread.
Click here for full-size images of these and other lebneh photos.
*Side note for those interested in translation & food literature: there is an item in this list I didn’t manage to translate – neither did the published English translator of the edition I quote above. The story this shopping list appears in isn’t even included in the other English translation of the Nights that I have on hand, but that is a long story for another day. In any case, the item’s name is literally “pickled or briny sparrows/songbirds,” which I imagine must be some creative name for a pickled something or other. But it’s not on the Google and I haven’t had time to sift through medieval Arab cookery books in search of it…anyone out there heard of such a thing? As for my translation of the types of olives mentioned, that was directly inspired by this article about the various traditional ways to cure green olives in Syria. In short, it tells us that some olives can be eaten at any time of day, while the second type mentioned in this list is specifically for breakfast.