The recent craze for thick-strained, Greek-style yogurt reminds us of another tangy, cheese-y favorite from a bit further across the Mediterranean. A staple in Middle Eastern countries from Syria and Lebanon to Jordan and Israel, this strained yogurt is a thicker, more spreadable version of its Greek cousin. Its crème fraîche-like texture and tangy taste that's somewhere between sour cream and cream cheese are almost too good to be true, and yet labneh is bona fide yogurt and has all of its health benefits (low in fat and carbs, full of protein and calcium). And, more than other yogurts, labneh adapts well to nearly every dish, pairing well with everything from greens and fruit salad to bagels and grilled meats.
Traditionally, labneh is eaten as a simple savory meal, spread onto pita bread, drizzled with olive oil, topped with mint leaves, and occasionally garnished with olives and sliced cucumbers. "We eat it in the morning accompanied with coffee, or in the evening with tea," says Gus Matli, co-owner, with his brother Tony, of Damascus, the well-known Syrian bakery in Brooklyn. In addition to being an ideal lite repast, labneh is a popular after-school snack. "In Lebanon, it's our childhood peanut butter sandwich," says Kamal Mouzawak, the founder of Beirut's twice-weekly farmers' market Souk el Tayeb, and co-owner of the restaurant Tawlet, also located in Beirut. "At 4 p.m., kids run home to ask their mom for a labneh sandwich, in pita with olive oil, mint leaves, olives, and tomatoes."
Among Americans, labneh is increasingly known for its versatility on the table. While it's not usually treated as a condiment, labneh's alluring culinary properties make it delicious on a wide variety of food items, from meats and grains to fruits and vegetables. "I have a customer who tells me that he eats it with watermelon," confesses Matli. This may seem sacrilegious to purists; as if we were mixing cream cheese with steak. However, once you add it to a spicy sausage – as we often have – there is no turning back. Labneh's custard-like consistency and mild tartness complement spiciness particularly well. What's more, labneh can make an overly cooked piece of meat taste less rubbery, and it can revitalize day-old bread when used as a dip with olive oil. Its power to transform dishes gone wrong into appetizing edibles is just one of its many advantages over regular unstrained yogurt. (That said, we tried it once as a sour cream substitute on pierogies and weren't crazy about it.)
Labneh's extended shelf life gives it another edge. The straining of the yogurt – removing whey and decreasing the water content to about 70 percent – increases the lactic acid concentration. This scientific process not only translates into a thicker yogurt, but also one that lasts several weeks longer than the average store-bought yogurt. You can even buy balls of labneh resembling mozzarella that are preserved in glass jars full of olive oil. It's called pickled labneh. "They can last many months outside the fridge in your kitchen cabinet," gushes Matli.
More information: For mail orders, Hashems Nuts and Coffee Gallery's website sells 1.55lb glass jars of the long-lasting labneh preserved in olive oil for ($8.95, hashems.com). If you find yourself in Brooklyn Heights, Damascus Bakeries sells 8-ounce containers of its housemade labneh for $3.50 and 2-pound jars of labneh in olive oil for $7.50. On the West Coast, Safeway sells 16-ounce containers of labneh produced by the California-based company Karoun Dairies.