japan has some of the freshest seafood in the world, and you can get it almost anywhere. their local produce is amazing and diverse and has flavors that i have never tasted before. japanese cooking emphasizes the inherent properties of the ingredients as opposed augmenting or concealing them with the use of spices (as we tend to do in the west).
but all these good things come with some downsides. namely, cheese.
cheese is expensive here. cream is expensive here. dairy in general is expensive here. i’ve been told that the quality is higher and the lack of intense factory farming makes the production of dairy products more ethical, but i can’t confirm or deny any of that. all i know is that the price is high, and that deters me from wanting to eat it. what can i say, i like my money to stay in my wallet, okay?
which isn’t to say i don’t like dairy. i like dairy enough that, despite the fact i am lactose intolerant, i still eat it. call me stupid if you want. i just can’t resist. creamy cheeses like gouda, brie, and camembert are especially tough to keep away from for me. and because i love cream cheeses, it should only follow that i also enjoy a good cream cheese now and again.
but in japan, the occasional impulse to buy cream cheese can cost you your first born child if you aren’t careful. so instead, i came up with a plan. i decided that instead of cream cheese, i would make a middle eastern delight called lebaneh.
- plain yogurt (about 1kg, or 32-34 oz)
- spices (or herbs) of your choosing
- cheese cloth (maybe)
- a colander
- line your colander with cheese cloth. uh oh, a parentheical (maybe). i included that because cheese cloth can be hard to find, and in all honesty, you don’t need it. you just need some thin fabric that will allow the liquid in yogurt to drain while not allowing the yogurt itself to leak out. i tend to use medical gauze because it is guaranteed to be sterile right out of the package and is pretty dang easy to find. put three or four layers that are big enough to drape over the sides into the colander. set aside.
- empty your yogurt into a large mixing bowl. add about a teaspoon of salt, and mix well. you can also add your choice of spices. the ones i tend to gravitate towards are ground coriander, black pepper, and cumin. if you want a less tangy and more herby cheese, i highly advise using thyme, oregano, basil, and parsley in any combination you like. once well-stirred, pour the yogurt mixture into the cheese cloth lined colander.
- gather the sides of the cheese cloth, bring them together at the top, and bind them with a long piece of string. make sure to tie it nice and tight, otherwise you are going to end up with a drippy yogurty mess. the result should look like exactly what it is: a pouch full of yogurt and spices.
- dangle it. hang the pouch somewhere cool and place a bowl underneath to catch the whey. i tend to use my refrigerator, although it tends to get in the way when i need to store things other than yogurt pouches. i have heard of people using basements, cellars, bathrooms, and even the good old outdoors.
- be patient. if you are looking for cream cheesiness, wait about 24 to 36 hours before unwrapping. my favorite is to allow it get to this stage, unwrap it, and mix in a bunch of super thinly chopped green onions. the result is something akin to chive cream cheese, only chock-full of nutrients, pretty darn low in fat, and super cheap. if you give it 48 to 72 hours, the texture firms up a lot and becomes very similar to cheese.
- once unwrapped, this cheese can be stored in a sealable plastic container for a few days with no problem. but if you really want to keep it for a while, i advise rolling it into balls, placing them into a small mason jar, drowning them in olive oil and a few loose dry herbs (like rosemary or thyme), and popping them into the refrigerator. these preserved morsels of lebaneh can be removed from the jar at any time for spreading on bread, wrapping with thinly sliced chilled meats, or serving as a side dish for pita.
- no, it isn’t cheese as you know it. but it is amazingly tasty, way better for you, cheaper, and similar to cheese in all the ways that count (in my opinion). give it a go. if you like it, try mixing up a sweet batch next time. i like to use dry cranberries and apples mixed with a little bit of honey sometimes. other times, i like to go the chinese hot pepper, five spice, and dried ginger route. then again, parsley, thyme, oregano, and lemon zest make an excellent combination. the possibilities are limitless and entirely up to you.