Laban (also spelled lban or لبن in Moroccan and Standard Arabic) is a word that refers to a food or beverage of fermented milk. Typically, in the part of the Middle East that comprises Arabia and North Africa, this refers to buttermilk, but not always. In the eastern part of the Middle East, the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and most of Turkey), it usually refers to labneh, a salty strained yogurt-like cheese.
The easiest way to remember the difference, geographical colloquialisms notwithstanding, is that laban usually refers to the thirst-quenching and probiotic beverage, whereas labneh has the texture of cream cheese and can be used as a dip or a spread.
Other Names: lban, leben, lben
Region of Origin: Middle East
What Is Laban?
As a drink, laban has been traditionally prepared by allowing milk to ferment for about 24 hours. After that point, it's churned and the butter is removed. The resulting liquid—the strained out buttermilk—would keep for several days at room temperature. In modern times, however, such approaches are not necessary, as it is produced industrially. It can be (and is) drunk like a beverage and is also used in cooking various specialties. Alternate spellings include lben, lban, and leben.
Is laban buttermilk? Yes, but not necessarily as we understand it in the Western world. And even the source may differ; it's not always made from cow's milk. In Morocco, both traditional buttermilk and cultured buttermilk are available, and are most often made with goat's milk rather than cow's milk.
Traditional vs. Cultured Buttermilk
Traditional buttermilk is produced when whole cream is churned to make butter. The newly formed butter separates from the liquid, which is the buttermilk. This resulting buttermilk is a slightly acidic thin liquid that happens to be low in fat (since most of the fat is now in the butter). Traditional buttermilk is not sold commercially in the United States but is available in North Africa and India, as well as South Asia and Northern Europe, where people drink it and use it in soups and sauces.
Cultured buttermilk, on the other hand, is made by fermenting milk, preferably fresh to retain beneficial bacteria but most often pasteurized. The low-fat or nonfat milk is fermented to turn the sugars into lactic acid. The resulting liquid is usually thicker than traditional buttermilk and is tart in flavor because of its increased acidity. This is what is sold in cartons among the dairy products in markets across the United States. Traditional and cultured buttermilk cannot be used interchangeably as their consistency and taste differ dramatically.
How to Use Laban
Laban is enjoyed as a refreshing beverage in the Middle East, especially Lebanon, Turkey, and Iran—in homes, cafes, and in cities where it is sold by street vendors. It is particularly popular following a meal of couscous, when it might be served alone or even mixed into plain couscous. Laban is also an ingredient in many dishes, often those with lamb, cucumber, and barley; recipes such as kibbeh bi laban (a rice ball), shorbah-Ib-laban (lamb or beef steaks with yogurt sauce), and shish barak (stuffed dumplings in a laban broth), all call for laban.
What Does It Taste Like?
Laban offers a sweet and tangy taste for the tongue, like yogurt. The consistency is similar to milk and less like the thicker buttermilk available in North American grocery stores.
Sure, laban is a go-to cooling drink, but it's also something you can cook with. In these recipes, you can use the laban as a marinade for tandoori, in a curry, or in a yogurt-based dressing. You may have to make adjustments if the ingredient you are using is not as thick as what's specified in the recipe.
Where to Buy Laban
It's not the easiest item to find in the United States unless you live near a Middle Eastern grocer or your supermarket caters to the foods of that region. Some folks, nostalgic for the comforts of home, have come up with a kitchen hack of combining salt, plain whole-milk yogurt, and either milk, water, or carbonated mineral water in a blender to replicate the taste and consistency of laban. (You can also add fresh or dried mint, if you like.) Others say that the closet taste is kefir; both are fermented dairy beverages, but kefir is much more widely available.
This product keeps for at least a week to 10 days once opened, in the refrigerator.