Cheese balls come in many styles and flavors; likely every cheesemaking part of the world has some version of a cheesy orb, be it rolled in nuts, herbs, spices, peppers, and dried fruits, or marinated in oil. The Middle East’s traditional cheese ball is Shankleesh, or “pickled Labneh,” a dairy delicacy native to Lebanon.
I happened upon Shankleesh by Baroody at Wekalet El Balah Egyptian American Grocery & Deli in Bayonne, N.J., where there is a large Egyptian community. The store is named for a historical outdoor market in Cairo, Egypt, yet sells products from all over the Middle East. This local Wekalet El Balah sports a thriving cheese section full of exotic Middle Eastern cheeses—cheeses I had never heard of—and I have eaten a lot of cheese in my life!
Shankleesh is a different type of marinated cheese ball. This cow’s milk version is much firmer than the spreadable goat cheeses in oil that I usually find from other countries.
Ingredients include “dry milk,” which I deducted was actually strained yogurt, or “Labneh,” and red hot pepper (possibly Aleppo), sweet spice (tastes like za’atar), and dry thyme. Some Shankleesh is marinatd in olive oil, but Baroody’s is in soybean. Oddly enough, since the cheeses are firm, they don’t become overly oily from the marinade; only the outside carries the oil. The flavors of the herbs and peppers, however, penetrate the little cheese balls.
Shankleesh is a crumbly cheese similar in texture to feta, and can be used much in the same way. Each 1-ounce cheese ball is about 60 calories with 6 grams of fat, making it a light accompaniment for vegetables. The whole cheese balls are an attractive addition to a meze appetizer selection, and in recipes, they are usually crumbled, especially over diced tomatoes and onions. Its tanginess is enhanced with a squeeze of lemon. Other additions include cucumber, parsley, mint, avocado, green peppers, and jalapeno peppers, black pepper, and olive oil. It’s also tasty over a green salad.
An adventuresome cheese lover can make Shankleesh at home, plain or with herbs, by straining Greek yogurt or Labneh in a sieve for three days or so, and then rolling the dryer substance into balls to marinate. The blog post “Marinated Yoghurt Cheese Balls (Labneh)” by Home Cooking in Montana, gives detailed instructions on how to make Shankleesh, including step-by-step pictures.
Elizabeth Bland, The Cheese Mistress