Friday, August 07, 2015

getting to know halloumi

Halloumi is not the name of Hillary Clinton's embattled assistant: it's the name of a type of Middle Eastern cheese that has an amusing property: you can cut a slice of it, flop that slice into a frying pan, then fry the hell out of it without the cheese's ever losing its shape. The Internet is full of porn-style shots of golden-fried halloumi. Take a look.

My friend Charles had mentioned halloumi once, long ago, immediately noting its fry-friendly properties, but it wasn't until today that I actually went out to the local Costco and bought myself a hunk. A large, loaf-like cylinder of halloumi costs about W18,000. It comes wrapped in a plastic seal that's tight, but which is still loose enough to contain a small amount of liquidy whey to preserve the cheese. When I palpated the still-wrapped halloumi with my thumb, it felt firm to the touch—more resistant than your typical mozzarella, but not as hard as, say, a Gruyère (which I also couldn't help buying today: it's my favorite cheese, after all).

When I got home, I cut open the wrapping without preamble, drained most of the whey, and placed the log of cheese onto a plate that I'd covered with a paper towel. I lifted the cheese off the towel, placed it reverently onto a different plate and, with mounting excitement, I cut off a half-inch-thick slice, mumbling that this, friends, was a true "cheese steak." I wanted to try the cheese in its pristine state first, so I broke a piece off, noting its robust texture, then popped the cheese into my mouth and chewed.

Almost immediately, the cheese squelched noisily under the pressure of my teeth, making a scaled-down version of the sound one might hear when a window washer drags his squeegee across the vitrine. At that same moment, the thought came to me: poutine! Halloumi would be perfect for making poutine! Pretty much all cheeses come from pressed and molded milk curds; the cheese used in Canadian poutine (humorously and/or affectionately known as Canada's national dish: fries and curds slathered in gravy) tends to be chewy, rubbery, and squeaky, just like this halloumi.

My second thought was that the time had come to fry this bastard up. I cut a second slice from the sacred loaf, fired up my frying pan, and dropped the halloumi onto it once the pan had gotten hot. There was an immediate sizzle; more whey bled out of the rubbery curd, caramelizing in the intense heat of the frying process. It didn't take long for the cheese to start browning; I browned both sides, then browned the edges, lowering the heat as I did so to allow the inside of the steak-sized slice to heat up before the outside burned too badly. By the time I finished, I had a perfectly golden-brown slice of halloumi heaven. I transferred it to a plate, shot the photo you see above, then drizzled the slice with honey and took another shot:

Halloumi has the bizarre trait of not looking like itself: it always reminds the observer of something else. To me, when I see the photos I took, the cheese reminds me of fried tofu, or French toast, or even broiled feta. The cheese's flavor is mild and slightly salty; the main reason why I bought it was to use it as a paneer surrogate: my Korean buddy JW, who had lived in India for four years, gave me a couple packages of Indian seasoning, including one meant to be used with paneer, an Indian cheese that can be made at home if one has the time and the equipment. I'm impatient to make this dish now.

So along with experiencing the glory that is bánh mì, I now know a lot about halloumi. My brother David suggested frying some up, then slathering it with apricot jam, as I've seen done with small wheels of brie as an hors d'oeuvre. Online, there are thousands of halloumi recipes, so I imagine the sky's the limit with this interesting, versatile cheese.


1 comment:

Charles said...

Halloumi does have that wonderful squeaky texture, doesn't it. I have a log from Costco in the fridge right now; we use it for wraps, along with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, avocado, etc. I must say that I have never tried it raw. I'll have to do that sometime.

I do hope you give the cheese making a shot. You mentioned needing time and equipment. Most of that time is waiting, and the equipment is pretty much a big stainless steel bowl, a cheesecloth, and some sort of strainer. But as that video that you posted mentioned, if you don't have a cheesecloth, you can use any type of cloth. Heck, even a tea towel would probably work. But it's really easy to make fresh cheese, and depending on how much liquid you squeeze out you can make anything from paneer to farmer's cheese to a faux ricotta. Did I mention that it was easy? It really is. So much so that the first time you do it you will ask yourself why you never did it before.

Man, now I want to whip myself up a batch and make a nice Italian-style cheesecake....