Monday, October 7, 2013

Spotlight on: Palestinian White Cheese, or Jibneh Baida

If you are a cheese lover, I'd love to introduce you to one of my most beloved cheeses, a simple, nourishing white cheese, made in kitchens across the Middle East from antiquity until today.



 

Jibneh baida is a firm white cheese, with a high melting point, a pungent flavor of goat and sheep milk, and a salty tang that will leave you reaching for bread.  Fried and served with eggs, or as part of a mezze, this cheese is hearty enough that it can be served as a side dish. 

When we moved from Cairo to Jerusalem when I was nine years old, I had to learn how to eat many new foods, and one of these foods was jibneh baida, which translates to mean, white cheese.  I was more accustomed to hard yellow cheeses, like cheddar, so this new cheese was a surprise.  It was salty, and the thick slices were a little rubbery, like slices of fresh mozzarella.  For breakfast,  my mother would cut loaves of Arabic ("pita") bread in half, spread them thick with butter, and stuff them with slices of this cheese.  Sometimes the cheese would be cold, other times it would be warm and crispy from being fried in butter.  But mommy, I would whine, this cheese is squeaky! She persisted in making me try it every day, and I am ever so glad that she did, because after a few weeks, my fear of a new food made way to a lifetime love affair with this cheese. 

Now, this cheese is one of the things I miss most about home.  I miss it so much that once a year my mother mails me a large jar of it from Palestine.  For me, that is love in a jar.

 
 
Jibneh baida  is what my mother taught me to call the semi-hard white, salt-brined cheese that I grew up eating.  It falls under the larger umbrella of white brined cheeses, which you can find throughout the Middle East, under different names, and each with a slightly different flavor, depending on the type of milk, and the potency and duration of the salt brine.  These cheeses are all rind-less, with a soft curd, and have a pronounced flavor of goat or sheep milk.  They are each named after their indigenous region, such as jibneh Nabulsi (cheese from the city of Nabulus),  jibneh Akawi (cheese from the city of Acre),  jibneh Arabiya (cheese from the Gulf),  or more generally, jibneh baladi (which means local cheese, made from raw local goat, sheep and cow milk).

Traditionally, and even today, most jibneh baida is made with raw milk, usually either from goat's milk or sheep's milk, or a combination.  The milk is warmed through but not scalded, and then an enzyme is added - rennet tablets, which are just powdered enzymes from animal stomach or intestines.  This tablet, which is actually widely available at most grocery stores, converts the milk into cheese.  After a rest period, the curds are separated from whey, and pressed into molds.   I have made this once or twice using this recipe

In its fresh form, this white cheese is unripened, meaning that it has not been aged or matured, unlike the bricks of cheese that you probably have in your refrigerators.  Instead, it is fresh and soft, like mozzarella, and should be consumed quickly to prevent spoiling,

To extend the life of this valuable cheese, Arab peasants learned to preserve these cheeses, much in the same way that they preserved other foods - olives, yogurt and vegetables.  They dried out their  blocks of cheese until they became hard, and then they stored them in large vats of salty brine. This dramatically extended the life of these pieces of cheese, so that instead of needing to consume them within a day or two, the brined jibneh could last for months unrefrigerated.

In the process, this cheese becomes a living, fermented food:  the lactose in the milk is fermented by the lactic acid bacteria, rendering these cheeses to be about 98% lactose-free, with makes it much easier to digest.  Perhaps that is why Arabs, who have high rates of lactose intolerance, depend upon this cheese and yogurt for almost all of their dairy intake.  Instead of pouring tall glasses of milk (which I have never seen a Palestinian do), they stuff these pieces of cheese into their bread. 

Nutrient-Dense Food, Three Ways


My mother always urged me to eat this cheese, telling me that it was a very wholesome and good for me.  Even now, when I am feeding my children and one of them hasn't had much to eat, my mother will point out, well, he did eat a few pieces of jibneh baida.  That's good.  So, what makes this food so nutrient-dense?

First, every small piece of cheese is really several cups of concentrated milk.  If you ever make this, you will see that one gallon of milk yields barely a cup of cheese, which means that a small amount of cheese is very nutrient dense.  Second, the milk used to make this cheese is usually raw, which makes this a living food.  Third, if the cheese is brined, it has the added benefit of being a fermented food, which means that it contains plenty of gut-colonizing healthy bacteria, excellent for maintaining good health (see post on why you should eat more good germs).


How to Find or Substitute


If you have a Middle Eastern market nearby, check that out first, for you are most likely to find some of this cheese there.  Otherwise, consider purchasing this cheese online at a reputable specialty shop. 

I find it very easy to substitute similar cheeses.  After all, many cultures have their own simple white cheeses (think Greek feta, Italian mozzarella, Indian paneer).  My favorite substitutions, ranked, are:
  • Halloumi - this is actually the Cypriot version of jibneh baida.  Just like jibneh baida, it is a semi-hard, unripened, brined white cheese made with a mixture of sheep, goat and cow's milk, which is converted to cheese with rennet.  Haloumi cheese is popular in Greece and Cyprus, and you can find this cheese in any well-stocked cheese store.  The main difference between halloumi and jibneh baida is that it holds its shape more firmly when cooked. 
  • Bread Cheese - I found this in at a cheese counter and brought it home one day because it looked like the cheese I grew up with.  Much to my delight, it also tasted like it!  This is actually the Finnish and Swedish version of white cheese, called leipäjuusto (bread cheese) or juustoleipä, and also know as Finnish squeaky cheese (see!?).   The flavor, like Arabic white cheese, varies according to the kind of milk used for the cheese.  Traditionally, this cheese was made from the nutrient-rich milk of a cow who had recently given birth . . . yes, this is colostrum cheese.  Now that is nutrient-dense food!  This bread cheese has been popping up at cheese counters, so check your local store for this.
  • Queso Fresco - this is a fresh Mexican cheese made from goat and cow's milk, so it has tang and the right texture, but not as salty as the brined jibneh.  Instead of rennet, the milk is curdled with an acid, such as vinegar or lemon.  While the very similar queso blanco seemed like the obvious choice to me at first, its flavor isn't quite assertive enough to compete with jibneh baida.  Still, it has the same texture and some of my U.S.-living Palestinian relatives use this as their go-to substitute.



How to Serve White Cheese Like an Arab


If your cheese is heavily brined, remove it from the brine and let it soak in water for a day or two, changing the water once, until it has reached your desired level of saltines.  The cheese substitutions will not require this step.

You can either serve this cold, sliced, or sautéed in butter.  To sauté, slice you cheese into thick slices, and place into a skillet, over medium heat.  After a few minutes, the cheese will release water.  Drain the water out of the skillet, and then add a pat of butter to the pan, swirling around so that your cheese is coated.  Flip when the cheese is begins to turn a golden brown, and becomes soft and limp.  If your white cheese is not brined, you can simply sauté with butter, flipping once.   

  • Sandwiches:  cold or fried pieces of cheese on buttered bread, with slices of tomatoes, cucumbers or peppers, if you like. We also used to microwave the cheese to create a lovely melty mass of cheese that could be eaten as is or scooped onto bread. 
  • For breakfast:  fry the cheese and serve alongside boiled eggs, bread.  If you have za'atar, serve this with some olive oil, for dipping, along with cured olives for a very traditional breakfast. 
  • This cheese is also used in many baked breads, flatbread pizzas, and as a base for my favorite dessert, kanafe, a honey-sweet cheese pastry. 

But really, this cheese is very approachable. 


Yes, it smells THAT good!




Just place a platter of cheese on a toddler-accessible surface and I can guarantee: approached, it will be!


Sources:
Feta and Related Cheeses, by Robinson and Tamime
Brined Cheeses, by Tamime



7 comments:

  1. I love this stuff! I got hooked on it while traveling in Egypt and Syria a few years ago. I especially love it with the little black seeds in it (sesame, I think?). In Canada I used to live near a few Middle Eastern shops so I could get it all the time. Now that I'm in Wisconsin, I've been able to source it out at a little Asian market that has a small Middle Eastern section :) I'm going to have to try your recipe!

    And an FYI for the vegetarians out there, most rennet used now is actually vegetable rennet, not from animal sources, as it's cheaper.

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  2. Hello and welcome! I am so glad that you share my love for this cheese. My daughter just asked if I could pack it in her lunch every day, so yes, I think it is addicting! And how wonderful that you found a little shop that sells it. As for the seeds, I've heard that they are actually nigella seeds, but I didn't grow up eating them, so they must be more popular in other parts of the Middle East.

    Didn't know about vegetable rennet - thanks for sharing that fact. I have only read about the animal sources, so that is very interesting. Thanks.

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  3. Great post, thank you! My mouth is watering. I'm going right up to my favorite Middle-Eastern grocer and look for this!

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    1. So glad you liked it! I hope you can find it, but if not, check out the substitutes.

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  4. I've made queso blanco but this one is new to me. I doubt I'll find it in Oklahoma but I'll keep my eyes open! Thank you for sharing at the HomeAcre Hop; I hope you'll join us again this Thursday.

    Kathi@ http://www.oakhillhomestead.com

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  5. I was introduced to Knafe in Amman, Jordan and to fried Jibna Baladi for breakfast while visiting Damascus and Tartus, Syria. There it was served with toast and apricot jam, which I highly recommend! :-) In the U.S. I've been using a Ricotta + Mozerella mix as a substitute in Knafe, but will now try using Queso Fresco, which is much easier to find in Iowa than is Jibna Nabulsia. (I was experimenting with frying Queso Fresco just now (it fried well, but could have used a bit more salt...), which was what spurred my search for a comparison between that and Jibna Nabulsia, which lead me to your great post!

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    1. Knafe, yummmmmm.... :-) I'm glad that you enjoyed the post!

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Trying this recipe? A question or a comment? I'd love to hear from you!