palestine yoghurt

Lessons in lateral cooking from Palestine

Haifa brings out a lump of what looks like hard, white cheese. It’s kishik. Dried salted yoghurt. She slices it thinly and it crumbles into salty shavings. It’s very salty actually, with a flavour and texture that makes me think of Parmesan. “This is baladi yoghurt”, she says. What she means is, it comes from a local farmer. Not the supermarket. This is what Palestinians mean when they say baladi; it is food from the land. Haifa has already soaked a portion of her kishik in hot water to revive it to its original self. Simply, salted yoghurt.

The arid south of Palestine was once predominantly a population of nomadic bedouins, surviving on a diet that was mainly based on the meat and dairy from their sheep, cows and camels. It was only in the verdant, wetter north that fruit and vegetables were a prolific part of the daily diet. During milking season, southern Bedouins would set about turning the excess into yoghurt, then salting and drying it in the hot desert sun. An obvious recourse to guarantee a steady food supply all year round.

Bedouins in southern Palestine still do this in fact. As Haifa’s daughter explained to me; “In Palestine, not all bedouin communities have sufficient or continuous supply of electricity so preserving food, and kishik in particular, is still a necessity in most of these communities. Many bedouins have to move their sheep to avoid both the extreme heat of summer and the cold winter weather. From a cost and logistics point of view, making kishik makes sense. It’s easier and cheaper to transport and can be stored in their modest caves, tents and homes”.

Kishik, whether you’re bedouin or not, has become a widespread ingredient in the Palestinian pantry. Haifa mixes her rehydrated version with regular, unsalted yoghurt. She is preparing a feast (one that I’ve written more about over here). Stale torn pitta, which she has already soaked in vegetable cooking water has swelled into a stodgy pulp. She mixes it all together, with some leftover courgette that she has by now sautéed with garlic. Olive oil is drizzled liberally on top. Dried mint follows.

There are examples of kishik across the Levant, stretching across Turkey and spanning as far as Tibet, tying a thread across continents and cultures, and opening a window onto history that is just fascinating. Kishik is made – depending on where you are – from either curdled yoghurt or cheese; from barley broth, bread, or flour; or from cereals combined with curdled milk. Something that, when you think about it, just makes sense. Of course, curdled or soured milk would have been a common feature in a kitchen without refrigeration. Fermenting it (either by making cheese or yoghurt) would have been the most obvious way to keep it safe to eat. And fermented grain would have played a part as nomadic communities settled into agriculture.

The nomadic cultures that have preceded us (and continue to exist) have much to answer for the way we eat today. Butter, they say, arose from the churning of cream left in a sack as it bumped along the side of herded camels. Cheese came from the need to store milk in the stomachs of sheep or goat – readily available sacks that contained the rennet which would in turn ferment milk into the cheese we eat today. What is yoghurt but a way to preserve milk by fermenting it? Or look at labneh – made by salting and straining yoghurt – that’s eaten widely across the Middle East. What is it but a way to preserve yoghurt for longer?

This is the kind of original lateral thinking we lack in cooking today, and one that we’d do well to return to if we want to continue to eat in a way that nourishes us. These days, a ready and abundant supply of pre-made products means we no longer need to. Now, we have factories and food companies to produce our food for us. But the limitations that so restricted our ancestors, whether it was lack of refrigeration or storage or a shortage of food, helped to spawn the creativity and ingenuity that formed the basis of the food we know and love today. Of the very cuisines that are so intrinsically linked to our culture and how we live.

Today, we tend to lack the basic understanding of how cooking works. The essential chemistry that curdles milk into cheese or ferments apple into vinegar or churns cream into butter. We can all do it, of course, but somehow we’ve been fooled into thinking it’s too difficult. Even when it comes to making a simple meal.

If we learnt the basic chemistry of how our food is made, we would be better equipped to stretch our ingredients to their full potential. In knowing that by straining yoghurt you can make cream cheese or that four basic ingredients will give you mayonnaise, suddenly we are able to improvise on the ingredients we have at our disposal. Approaching our cooking laterally and creatively pushes us to think about where our ingredients come from and gives us the skills to waste less. Not to mention the ability to produce truly flavoursome meals.

Haifa puts the kishik yoghurt onto the table. Stuffed courgettes and garlicky yoghurt soup, spiced fritters and courgette fatte follow. Her daughter passes around a jug of cool, sweet pomegranate juice and we gather around the kitchen table to eat. This is the food that nourishes us.