Epicurean Adventures

Top 7 Arabic cheeses of Saudi

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Jubna is the Arabic word for cheese, and though you can find every imaginable type in the international markets and sophisticated restaurants of Saudi, traditional Arabian varieties from around the region remain the most popular. When visiting Saudi, be sure to try these seven popular white cheeses.

Nabulsi

Originally from the town of Nablus, in Palestine, this cheese is an essential ingredient in the wildly popular sweet and savory dessert kunefe, in which it is grated and layered under fried vermicelli noodles, baked until bubbling and crisp, then doused with rose water-scented simple syrup. The semihard cheese is made of goat’s or sheep’s milk and is sold either sweet (unsalted) or brined. The latter is extremely salty and “would taste exotic to a Western palate,” says Majed Al Muhanna, a heritage food documenter. It is typically soaked overnight before use in salads and sandwiches.

Chamee

This homemade variety is the traditional cheese of the Arabian Peninsula. It was especially popular in nomadic days before imported cheeses were widely available in the region. Made from laban, a liquid yogurt, it has a texture like ricotta and a salty, tangy flavor. Most locals use it to make sweet and savory combinations, like chamee-stuffed dates or flatbread topped with cheese and honey.

Haloumi

Another import from the Levant, haloumi is a brined cheese made from goat’s and sheep’s milk. Though salty, it doesn’t need to be soaked before eating, but it should be grilled or pan-fried. It is a deliciously chewy, salty addition to sandwiches, but it can also be eaten as a snack and pairs beautifully with fresh watermelon or grilled tomatoes. “I love the texture and the taste,” Al Muhanna says. “It’s very soft but still holds its form.”

Puck Cheese

Though produced in the Netherlands, this processed dairy spread, introduced by industrial dairy companies to Saudi in the 1960s and ’70s, is “the most commonly found cheese in Saudi homes,” Al Muhanna says. Arguably the best way to enjoy it is spread onto white bread and rolled up. Another crowd-pleaser: the “Chips Oman” sandwich, a distinctive regional snack that stuffs chili-flavored potato chips, puck cheese and some kind of meat (sometimes hot dogs) in a bun. 

Akkawi/Taif Baladi

Akkawi cheese is a soft white cheese with a mildly salty flavor and a mozzarella-like texture that makes it ideal for topping the popular Saudi snack akkawi manakeesh, a flatbread that’s similar to pizza. The unsalted variety is used to make the popular Ramadan dessert qatayef — which blends the cheese with cream, crushed pistachios and rose water syrup. Somewhat similar to Akkawi is Taif baladi cheese, which is produced solely in the namesake region. “It has a little bit of bitterness to it, which makes it unique,” Al Muhanna says. Both pasteurized and unpasteurized versions are available — Al Muhanna advises choosing the former.

Saudi Feta

The localized version of this Mediterranean classic is a relatively new addition to the region’s cheese offerings, but it has quickly become one of the most popular. Saudi feta is a creamy brined curd made from cow’s milk that is milder than what you might find in Greece. Saudis like to enjoy it layered on warm flatbread with fresh herbs.

Labneh

“Labneh is another big favorite in Saudi homes,” Al Muhanna says. Historically, labneh was made to preserve and store fresh milk for nomadic treks across the desert, but the resulting products, which range from a fermented, drinkable yogurt to oil- and herb-coated balls of cheese, remain essential to the culinary landscape of Arabia. Various textures of this “yogurt cheese” can be produced, from liquid to something more like cream cheese, depending on how long it is allowed to drain in a cheesecloth. Labneh is most often served with fresh bread, sliced vegetables and herbs, or slathered on crisp man’oushe (flatbread) hot out of the oven.

Click here to dig into the history of dates, another Saudi staple. 

Felicia Campbell is a cookbook author, magazine editor and culinary anthropologist who has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East.

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