Labna from Jordan

Labna (also spelled Labneh, Labaneh, Lebnah, Labne, or Labni) is a white yogurt cheese that is popular throughout the Middle East. You make it by removing the excess whey from salted yogurt, which results in a velvety, cream cheese-like spread with a lightly sour note. The word, “labna” itself, comes from the word "laban," which means white or milk. The flavor of your labna depends largely on the type of milk you use.  Labna from cow's milk has a rather milder flavor than those made with the milk from camels, as is the custom in Saudi Arabia, and goats. 

While labna is not unique to Jordan, I assume Oxfam selected it as the representational cuisine since it is a key ingredient in Jordan’s national dish: mansaf. Mansaf is a lamb dish cooked in a sauce of fermented dried labna (jameed). The dish is served on a large platter with a layer of flatbread (markook or shrak) which is topped with rice and then meat, garnished with almonds and pine nuts and then the sauce is poured over all of it. A spice mixture of baharat, and in Jordan, herbs called hwajeh, add distinctive flavor, with regional variations. The Green Prophet, an environmental blog focused on sustainability within the Middle East and North Africa, states that labna is a good example of cooking with local ingredients. The making of jaheed takes advantage of milk surpluses. By dehydrating, salting, and straining the labna into hand rolled balls, it can later be used to thicken sauces and flavor foods by re-hydrating it.

Of all meats in Jordan, lamb is one of the most readily available. The use of the lamb and labna in the mansaf recipe harkens back to the agro-pastoral lifestyle of many Jordanians prior to the late 20th century in which meat and yogurt were readily available. Oxfam’s text refers to this agro-pastoral past.  In Recipes from Many Lands, Oxfam claimed that in 1976 “about 1 million people live in the countryside [in Jordan] and nearly all of them are engaged in agriculture, which is the most important sector of the economy.” However, although agriculture substantially contributed to the economy at the time of Jordan's independence, it has experienced a steady decline ever since. In the early 1950s, agriculture constituted almost 40 percent of GNP; on the eve of the June 1967 War, it was 17 percent, by the mid-1980s, agriculture's share of GNP in Jordan was only about 6 percent. Today agriculture is just 3.2 percent of the GDP (statistics about the GNP for present day were unavailable).  While agriculture’s importance in the Jordanian economy has declined, mansaf serves as a reminder of customs and foodways of the past.

Although Oxfam parsed down many of the recipes within the book in order to allow school-aged children to be able to prepare the dishes, their recipe for Labna seems consistent with many others that I found online from a variety of sources.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that the contributor of the recipe was Claudia Roden, a renowned cookbook author who has published over 18 cookbooks, and is best known for her work on A Book of Middle Eastern Food (1968) and The New Book of Middle Eastern Food (2000).

To make Labna, Oxfam style, you will need: yogurt, salt, olive oil, and paprika powder. Add ½ to 1 tsp of salt per ½ liter of yogurt, depending on your preference.

Pour the yogurt into a sieve or colander lined with damp muslin. Let the whey drain out overnight. You will be left with a very light and soft cheese. You can choose to shape the cheese into balls or serve in a glob.

Although I followed the recipe, I wish I had let the cheese drain for even longer than 24 hours, in order to be able to more easily shape the cheese balls. Sprinkle the cheese with olive oil and paprika.

When labna is not integrated into mansaf, it is eaten for breakfast. For our monthly meeting I neglected to bring a kind of bread and so we ate the labna with slices of bagel.