The thought of cheese usually brings to mind European varieties and their offshoots, but the dairy delicacy might have originated in the Middle East among nomadic goat herders. Though no one knows for sure where cheese got its start, history shows evidence of it in the region at least 4,000 years ago. Modern varieties use sheep's, goat's or cow's milk, and while some resemble their European counterparts, many distinctive Middle Eastern cheese varieties developed with characteristics all their own.
Feta is considered one of the world's oldest cheese varieties. Greek in origin, feta appears frequently in modern Middle Eastern dishes. An aged but soft cheese made from sheep's or goat's milk, feta's best quality might be its versatility. In Middle Eastern cuisine, feta garnishes everything from salads to desserts, but it can be enjoyed on its own.
A soft creamy cheese made from strained yogurt, labneh is easy to make at home and lower in calories than American-style cream cheese. Use labneh as a spread on bagels, as a dip for your favorite fruit and vegetables, or to flavor an omelet.
Ackawi, a cheese made from cow's milk, originated in the Aker region of Palestine. This soft, unripened white brine cheese has a smooth but slightly chewy texture with a mild, salty taste. Pair it with various fruits on a cheese tray.
A semi-hard brined cheese typically made from sheep's or goat's milk, nabulsi comes from Palestine and the surrounding areas. It can be studded with black caraway seeds. Nabulsi is often used as a table cheese and is the main ingredient in katayef pastry.
A semi-hard, mild cheese common in Egypt, jibneh arabieh was originally produced using goat's or sheep's milk but today is typically made with cow's milk. It appears in a variety of dishes and as a table cheese.
Unique for being shaped like an orange, testouri hails from Egypt and is eaten lightly salted. It is made from goat's or sheep's milk.
Halloumi, produced from a mixture of goat's and ship's milk, resembles mozzarella. A high melt point makes it possible to fry or grill halloumi without losing the solid bite. Halloumi is often paired with salads and fruits, particularly watermelon.
Shanklish is a cheese common to Syria and Lebanon and made from sheep's or cow's milk. It is commonly formed into balls, then allowed to dry and age. The cheese can be eaten fresh or aged. Fresh cheese tastes mild with a soft texture, while a firmer aged shanklish has a pungent odor.