Shanklish is a Middle Eastern cheese with a similar texture to feta. Made from yoghurt whey, the cheese is salted, shaped into balls and aged.
In the mountainous village of Rahbeh, Hanna Ibrahim Rizk explains the process, as he and his daughter Amineh waited for some arisheh to dry in the sun. They both burst into laughter when I told them that in Beirut we eat shanklish with tomato, onion and parsley.
The old man’s reaction was “please, try this shanklish. Although the process is not finished yet, you can try it with some virgin olive oil.
This is the only way for us to eat arisheh,” he said before adding, “with some arak of course!”
Shanklish cheese is a Lebanese mezze, usually served crumbled in the middle of a plate surrounded with chopped onion, diced tomato and hashed parsley. Before savoring it, all ingredients are mixed together with olive oil. It tastes salty and pungent.
Conventionally, shanklish was made of goat cheese. With time, the habits have changed and the last two generations have been preparing it with cow milk. This cheese comes in the form of a dry ball, covered from the outside with different ground spice mixtures like oregano, pepper or cinnamon.
Nowadays, shanklish is produced industrially. But traditionally, it was known as a product of Syria and northern Lebanon, more particularly the Akkar region. Both Gebrayel and Rahbeh villagers used to produce it, and the method of production was handed down the generations. This tradition is a result of an old-fashioned attitude to food, which led to developing a preservation technique that has proven successful.
Making shanklish requires a great deal of intensive manual labor.
First, you have to transform the fresh cow milk into laban. Once the laban is ready, it is poured into a mechanical container that shakes it (until recently, the shaking process was done manually in an elongated pottery container). This separates the samneh (butter) from the aayran (skimmed yogurt). The aayran is once again heated until it breaks down, and then poured into cotton cloth pieces that are hung over a sink till no water is left in the bag (this takes approximately 12 hours). The arisheh is then removed from the cotton clothes, salt is added, and it is rolled into round individual pieces, set on paper towels and left to dry in the sun. Once the balls are completely dried, they are placed in containers (today glass containers have replaced the pottery jars) for two months to ferment slowly in a dark dry place.
"It takes two months to ferment slowly"
Traditionally, the balls were rolled in oregano - and only oregano. Today, different types of spices or a mixture of spices are used.
As one of our traditional foods, shanklish - or “arisheh” as they call it in Rahbeh - deserves to be listed as an intangible cultural heritage item, especially that my visit to Akkar has shown a decline of the traditional shanklish production. In Gebrayel, the grey haired lady that used to produce it has stopped a few years ago, and in Rahbeh, it has been transmitted to younger generations only in a few households. The production is no longer for personal use, but made to order. In other words, you cannot just arrive to Rahbeh and buy local arisheh.
“The cow milk is expensive. If no one has put an order of arisheh, we cannot afford paying for the milk” explained Rizk. “A few years ago, I used to have my own cows, but I had to sell them, and now we have to buy the milk”.