Journalist Sarah Efron explores strip malls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants in search of the city's best ethnic food

Monday, January 17, 2011

Halloumi: This amazing Middle Eastern cheese is available at No Frills

Halloumi is one of my all-time favourite cheeses. It's super salty. It's wet, like feta, and even a little squeaky, like fresh Quebecois curds. Halloumi (also written halloume) has a high melting temperature so you can throw it right on the grill with a bit of oil, where it gets soft and toasty. Traditionally this unripened cheese was made with sheep milk but now it generally comes from cow's milk.

People think that halloumi originally comes from the island of Cyprus, but that's not the case, according to Hiyam, co-owner of Akram's Shoppe, a Middle Eastern store and restaurant at 181 Baldwin Street in Kensington Market. "It comes from a village in Syria called Halloumi," she says. "It is a very Syrian cheese." Hiyam and her husband Akram come from Syria, of course. Their shop, which set up in Kensington 15 years ago, reopened last spring after a short renovation morphed into a two year and eight month ordeal.

Hiyam says halloumi cheese is very popular with her customers. She adds that it can be lit on fire like the saganaki cheese you get at Greek restaurants.

You used to only find halloumi in Middle Eastern/Mediterranean speciality shops, but for at least a few years, you've been able to get it at the bigger No Frills stores. I was recently surprised to see halloumi and it's close cousin akawie at the Metro. The Metro products are the same as Akram's, from a Montreal company, Phoenicia Products.

But Akram's has some special things that the big chains will never be able to replicate. They serve a halloumi sandwich with veggies and olive tapanade, wrapped in a pita and grilled. Hiyam also serves a halloumi salad with olives, pickles, walnuts and sun-dried red peppers. She also says they have halloumi pizza.

Akram's also has another of my all time favourite cheeses, twist cheese.

According to the Internet, this cheese originates in Armenia, but Hiyam's daughter is quick to point out that it must also come from Syria, as Damascus is 5,000 years old and predates other cities in the region. It tastes like halloumi but is even a little saltier. It comes in threads wrapped up in a ball of cheese. "When you're making the cheese you boil it and strain it quickly to make the strings," explains Hiyam. It has a nigella seeds in it-- also called black cumin or black caraway--that add a nice texture.

Hiyam recommended another cheese to sample, Nabulsi. She explained that it originates from Nablus, in Palestine. While the other cheeses I mentioned are salty, this one is an insane salt-packed punch. Eating a bite is kind of like downing a shot of hard liquor. Probably better eaten as they do in the Middle East, baked into a savoury pastry.

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1 comment:

  1. I love that string cheese, you soak it in warm water, unravel and have a nice snack.