In the fridge, at the breakfast, lunch or dinner table, in any home in Palestine and you will find a bowl of this tangy spread made from two simple ingredients: yogurt and salt. We always had bread and labani in the house. Stores closed because of a political strike? Bread and labani. No time to cook? Bread and labani for dinner. In a hurry for breakfast? Bread and labani and a cucumber.
Simple as it is, it is delicious and nourishing. This spread holds all of the goodness of yogurt, high in protein and probiotics, but it is even more concentrated and more portable.
Labani (also labaneh, labneh, labane) is from the Arabic word laban, which means yogurt. I have seen it described in English as "yogurt cheese." Technically not a cheese, this is similar to Greek yogurt, but with the consistency of cream cheese.
Palestinians use labani as a savory spread, paired with olive oil, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and zaitar, a thyme seasoning. We teach children to tear off a small piece of bread and pinch the labani out of the common bowl, and then to dip it into a bowl of olive oil and then a bowl of zaitar. My mother often gave me sandwiches of labani: round of Arabic bread torn in half and spread with labani, drizzled with olive oil and then stuffed with slices of tomatoes or cucumber. This is now my daughter's favorite sandwich.
Americans have adapted labani to their own tastes. I have seen it used as a substitute for cream cheese in sweet recipes, or used as a base for other veggie dips.
Whey, the thin yellowish liquid that is strained out of the yogurt, is a potent elixir that should always be saved. It is a complete protein, and full of gut-repairing microbes. It can be used as a starter in cultured foods, to add protein to smoothies, substituted for water in baked breads, or to soak your grains. My grandfather always insisted that my grandmother save the whey after making labani, so that he could drink it straight up. It tastes like, well, yogurt. It will keep in your refrigerator for six months.
1 quart of plain whole yogurt, homemade preferred
Sea salt to taste
Nest a colander into a larger bowl. If you have it, layer cheesecloth into the bowl. If you don't have it, take an old, clean pillow case and turn it inside out (unless you like lint in your labani). Set it into the bowl. Spoon yogurt into the pillow case or cheesecloth, and then twist tightly. If you like, you can place a plate on top and add a heavy can to help press out the whey quickly.
Periodically check the whey level and pour into a clean container.
For a faster labani, tie your yogurt-filled pillow case to your faucet and let it drip down into your sink (with a bowl to catch the whey). This is the traditional way to prepare labani and it is very efficient.
You can strain it anywhere from 4 hours to overnight. Labani can be left out on the counter to strain for some time, since the yogurt is cultured, but I usually put it in the fridge if I am going to let it strain overnight.
When the labani is as thick as cream cheese and forms a ball, turn it out of your cloth, stir in some sea salt, and the store in the refrigerator.