In a country (and a region) so culinarily rich, and so agriculturally focused, it’s pretty amazing how lame Israel seems when it comes to cheese and dairy. The classic iconic representation of this problem is that when you ask for cheese in Israel you only have two options: “white or yellow”. White cheese is liquidy but thick like a cross between sour cream and cream cheese. Yellow is kind of like thin slices of provolone but with less flavor. Not exactly a cheese lover’s paradise.
It’s true that in recent years Israel is starting to develop a properly diverse cheese culture (no pun intended). But as that develops it’s more interesting than one would realize at first glance what has been in place for decades. Beneath the “white or yellow” lies a narrow but deep set of diverse cheese offerings (the bulk of them being in liquid or at least spreadable form).
Here are some of the mainstays of Israeli dairy consumption that you may not be familiar with:
- Leben. This is kind of a drinkable yogurt. It’s tart, and thick. Not a super smooth consistency, but the texture adds to the deliciousness.
- White cheese. As mentioned above, it’s like you mixed yogurt and cream cheese together. Relatively smooth consistency with only a slight “grain”. It comes with different fat content comes in 3%, 5% and 9%. I like to mix together white cheese and leben and then combine with some israeli salad, a chopped up hard boiled egg, salt, and pepper. Sounds gross (kind of looks gross) but trust me. It’s scrumptious.
- Labne. This is basically a cream cheese made of yogurt. Similar to white cheese, but comes from the Arab cooking traditions (to the best of my understanding). The best labne I ever had was on my recent trip to Israel. Labne can be anywhere from creamy to hard enough to form into balls (covered with zatar of course). The labne I had was made from goat milk and had an incredible acidic component. But the best part was that the consistency was somewhere between the silkiest butter you’ve ever had and whipped cream. (I hate to mention the dreaded Cool Whip, but the consistency of this labne was like what you imagine Cool Whip’s consistency to be like by looking at the package before you taste it and realize it’s an unholy creation spawned by the devil). The combination of the silky texture and the incredible sharp taste blew me away. There was nothing I didn’t want to spread it on. (That’s labne pictured above drowned in super flavorful olive oil and zatar. Yum yum.
- Butter. I think by default the butter in Israel has higher fat content than its North American cousin. And that’s a good thing.
There aren’t huge choices in Israel quite yet when it comes to cheese, but this tiny slice of the liquidy/yogurty/spready cheese spectrum is rich enough to distract you for some time until you realize almost nobody there has ever heard of Epoisse.