In traditional local cuisine, kishk, also known as hard yogurt or jameed, is used mainly as a substitute for fresh yogurt. In spring, when fresh milk and dairy products that can be kept for only a short time without refrigeration are plentiful, cooks would use fresh yogurt to prepare regional dishes like mansaf (a festive stew with rice and mutton) or shush-barak (dumplings filled with meat and cooked in hot yogurt). To make these dishes all year long – and to enjoy the nutritional benefits of dairy products for a long period – they needed a technique for preserving milk.
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Kishk is prepared from rayeb, sheep’s milk from the previous day’s milking, which has already soured. You put it into a churn and separate the zibda (sour butter with a greasy texture) from the shanina, low-fat yogurt. You collect the zibda for several days, boil it, add flour, burghul or rice and skim constantly until you get samneh, or clarified butter. The shanina is heated to separate the milk solids from the whey. After straining, a kind of soft labneh called gafas is obtained. The gafas is put into a cloth bag and a heavy stone weight is placed on top to squeeze out more of the liquid. Then salt is added to the curd that remains; it is set aside for two weeks and then manually formed into small cone-like loaves that dry in the open air. The final product, kishk, can keep for months, even years.
Today’s abundance of milk, the result of artificially prolonging the reproductive cycle of cows, sheep and goats, help explain why kishk has been sidelined. It remains the legacy of poor communities that, for lack of choice, adhere to traditional techniques of preserving milk. Why use dried cheese or dried yogurt, which has to be reconstituted by adding liquid, if you can use the original product? In places like the South Hebron Hills – in the Palestinian village of Susiya, for example – that are not yet linked to the electricity grid and continue to raise animals by traditional methods, they still prepare exceptionally high-quality kishk that benefits from the dry desert air of the region.
And that kishk – which is substantially superior in taste and quality from the semi-industrial products on the market – has added value. The complex umami, or savory, taste and the tart fragrance of the dried, salty product can enrich many foods, not only the traditional ones. Commercial kishk can be found in groceries in towns and cities with a large Arab population, like Haifa, Nazareth and Jerusalem.
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“I treat kishk somewhat like local pecorino cheese,” says Michal Waxman, author of cookbooks (“Baladi: Four Seasons in Nazareth ”) and blogger (“Bo’u Le’ekhol” – “Come Eat”). Like me, she finds it hard to understand why the owners of local dairies don’t continue the tradition of producing kishk, and why local chefs don’t make an annual pilgrimage in the spring to places where they still produce kishk according to traditional methods.
“The connection between kishk, tomatoes and delicate white za’atar (hyssop) leaves and flowers is the quintessential flavor of the Israeli summer. They’re all agricultural products that carry the DNA of the time and place where we live, and it’s so logical to combine them in the kitchen by cooking or roasting, or simply cutting, grating and minimal seasoning.”
The recipes Waxman prepared after we observed the process of preparing kishk reflect the greatness of this popular ingredient.
Gazan salad of roasted tomatoes and kishk
In the traditional version, Gazan salad is seasoned with chopped dill or dill seeds. I replaced the dill with za’atar.
5 medium-sized Maggie tomatoes
2 spicy green peppers
50 gm. kishk, grated or ground into a powder
1 garlic clove
a generous amount of olive oil
a handful of leaves and flowers of fresh za’atar
Roast the tomatoes and peppers on a hot grill until they are soft and scorched.
Let them cool, and peel them. Remove the seeds from the peppers.
Place peppers and garlic in a mortar and crush with a pestle into a coarse paste.
Add the tomatoes and crush to form a coarse paste.
Add the grated kishk and mix while crushing.
Transfer to a serving plate.
Drip olive oil over it very generously and scatter the za’atar leaves and flowers.
Cherry tomatoes stuffed with kishk, za’atar, tomatoes and breadcrumbs
15-20 cherry tomatoes, as large and firm as possible, cut in half, seeds and pulp removed and set aside
50 gm. of yesterday’s challah, ground into crumbs (or store-bought breadcrumbs)
50 gm. kishk, grated or ground into powder
1 garlic clove
1/3 cup fresh za’atar leaves
1/3 cup olive oil, and a little more for dripping
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees Celsius.
Arrange the emptied tomato halves in a baking pan in one densely packed layer.
Mix crumbled kishk and breadcrumbs in a bowl. Put the za’atar, tomato seeds, garlic and olive oil into a food processor, and process to a uniform mixture.
Add the tomato mixture to the bread and kishk mixture. Combine with your hands until a uniform and relatively solid paste is formed. With your hands, stuff the tomatoes with pieces of this paste. If the mixture is too sticky and watery you can add one or two tablespoons of breadcrumbs and knead it again.
When each tomato half has been stuffed with a generous portion of the mixture, drip olive oil over them and scatter za’atar leaves on top.
Roast in the center of the oven for 10 minutes, or until the stuffing browns and the tomatoes become soft, but don’t fall apart.
Eat hot or cold.
Pasta with kishk and za’atar pesto
Zibda, the tart sheep buttermilk, is a rare product in Israel. It can be replaced with goat butter, which is available in cheese stores, natural food stores and some of the supermarket chains. If you can’t find it, ordinary butter can be used.
Ingredients (serves 2):
1/4 cup crumbled kishk plus a little more for grating (optional)
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 garlic clove
1 cup fresh za’atar leaves
1/4 cup zibda or soft (not melted) butter
1 ripe tomato, halved
200 gm. long pasta
3-4 tbsp. of cooking water from the pasta
To prepare pesto: In a food processor, process the kishk until it turns into a white powder. Add the pine nuts and process again until a uniform mixture is produced. Add the za’atar leaves and the garlic and process again until well blended.
Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add the pasta and a generous amount of salt, and cook until the pasta is al dente.
Set aside a few tablespoons of the cooking water and strain the pasta.
Transfer strained pasta to a large bowl, add the pesto and mix thoroughly, so that the pesto covers all the pasta. If pesto is too dry, add a little of the cooking water you have set aside.
Divide the pasta into serving plates, squeeze half a tomato over each portion, grate on more kishk if you like, and serve hot.
Fig carpaccio with kishk
This is not exactly a recipe, more of a quick serving suggestion. The fig season is now beginning, and this is another pleasant way to enjoy the fruit and the kishk.
3-4 firm, ripe figs
a teaspoonful or two of kishk, ground to a powder
leaves and flowers of fresh za’atar
Slice the figs into thin whole circles and arrange them close together on a large serving platter. Drip olive oil generously over the figs.
Sprinkle lightly with the kishk powder and scatter fresh za’atar leaves over all.
Serve with fresh bread or toasted pita.