Serious Cheese: Have You Ever Had Laban Kishk?
Laban kishk is yogurt like you've never had it before: dried with cracked bulgur wheat, fermented for three to five days, and ground to fine powder between two hands. Hailing from pastoral Lebanon and found throughout the Levant, kishk belongs to a larger family of preserved foods grouped under and derivative of the Persian kashk.
While modern kashk is prepared by drying yogurt or buttermilk, often with fermented grain, this wasn't always how things were done. The word 'kashk' originally referred to a food prepared from barley, Richard Tapper and Sami Zubaida note in A Taste of Thyme. But the word eventually changed in meaning, thanks to Iranian-speaking livestock farmers with limited access to barley who encountered the word kashk and used it to describe to a staple of their own: dried sour milk. (The two share some similar physical properties: both have a granular consistency; barley, due to the presence of lactic acid, develops a sour flavor when it is boiled, cooled, and reheated; and both dried sour milk and barley bread were prepared in the form of round, flat cakes.) Kashk, you could say, is where the pastoral and agricultural worlds of the Middle East converged.
Today, kashk is found in many forms and places, from Turkey to Pakistan. There is qara qurut, used to describe a condiment of black dried curdled milk; Anatolia's tarhana, a paste made of cooked and sieved vegetables mixed with lebne, salt, yeast, and flour that is leavened, dried, and ground by hand; and laban kishk.
I was first introduced to laban kishk by Ron and Lee-tal Arazi of NYShuk, the Smorgasburg vendors and sellers of Middle Eastern pantry staples. Ron, who discovered kishk on trips to the old Arabic side of Jerusalem, had mentioned the food and his preoccupation with it to me in previous conversations.
Laban kishk, Arazi tells me, was created by Bedouins out of a need to preserve milk through the winter. This is confirmed by Tapper and Zubaida, who describe it as "one of the most valued preserved foods" in rural Lebanon, especially for brutally cold winters, and quote a saying: "the wheat heart is inside it, the best of the milk is in it."
Sold in irregular blocks or as a powder, kishk has a strong odor, like a well-aged cheese. When reconstituted in water, the kishk from Israel smells very much like pecorino—though the aroma obviously depends on the type of milk used to make it. I found the kishk to be rich and umami-blasting, with a mild saltiness and citrusy sourness, immediately calling to mind a supercharged Parmigiano. Grate some over a plate, dab your finger lightly, and take a lick. You won't regret it.
The most traditional of dishes prepared with kishk, Ron tells me, is mansaf, or flat bread topped with rice, meat cooked with onions, garlic, baharat (black pepper, allspice, and cinnamon), and rehydrated kishk boiled to a soupy consistency. But it has many uses, from mahshi, or stuffed dishes, to cold beverages, stews, soups, and pancakes. Writing for the Guardian, London-based Israeli chef Yottam Ottolenghi offered recipes for mansaf and the dip muhammara. Fitting their station as Israelites in America, the Arazis suggested grating kishk over collard greens or eggs.
If you're interested in experimenting with laban kishk, or just want an introduction to the wide world of kashk, you can purchase some from Manhattan's Kalutsyan's. We don't know of any kishk being commercially produced in the United States, but if you do, let us know in the comments!
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats and Anatomy of A Smorgasburg Pop Up columns. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.