A Recipe for the Homesick: Labneh and Kishkeh Balls

Food writer Nahla Tabbaa's introduction to a comforting dish

The legend of yoghurt lies in an accidental taste of curdled milk that did not poison a particular herdsman in Mesopotamia. In the practice of storing milk in bags made from animal guts, the enzymes would cause the milk to sour.

At university, homesick and hungry students would pass on this very important antidote for the yearning for home: making labneh using yoghurt, coffee filters, a rubber band, and mug, and leaving this window sill apparatus to thicken into a creamy sandwich spread for the week.

Labneh is a strained yoghurt that is eaten with bread and olive oil primarily for breakfast or dinner. Unlike a cream cheese, it has a specific tartness and thickness to it—a memorable palette when you get it right. The labneh can be rolled into balls and stored in containers of olive oil or plated like a dip. In 7th grade this was my best friend’s and my lunchbox meal, labneh with shatta (a red chili pickles spread) sandwiched between paper thin bread and toasted. Although it would be cold, slightly soggy, the penetrating flavors and shocking dosages of chili never failed to sustain us.

Back in my grandmother’s home, she would combine a more elaborate version called Kishkeh. This was her favorite companion for a Turkish soap opera and always washed down with a Diet Coca Cola.

The recipe below is a dedication to this constellation of memories I have around this dish, and has been a popular addition to my supper club menus in the UAE thanks to the expat community also longing to pull up a chair at their family home and tuck into labneh.

Recipe for Kishkeh Balls

As I hand over the baton of this recipe to you, I need you to know that my measurements are based on intuition rather than mathematics, please do not dismay, and instead train your eyes and hands to quantify independently. I hope that you enjoy the process of using this recipe as a blank canvas to innovate and play, in fact, I demand this.


1.You will need: coffee filter or muslin cloth or cheese cloth or kitchen towel, a mason jar or tupperware, a sieve or rubber band to affix the filter, a bowl to collect the whey tears.

2.Combine the yoghurt, salt, burghul, and walnuts. Feeling brave? Throw in a spoon of your chili paste.

3.Place this combination in your chosen filter (in this case I have used two folded kitchen towels—something typically frowned upon since they are bleached, but I’m also impatient and practical).

4.Place this sack on your sieve/ filter and place over a bowl or mug. 

5.With a heavy heart, weigh the sack down. Use cans, breaks, stones, and make a pile of all the things that burden you.

6.The sack will begin to cry and release its whey into your container.

7.You may now leave this on your kitchen counter for a few hours and, for additional thickness, leave it overnight in the fridge.

8.Dip your washed hands into olive oil and grab chunks of the mixture and rolls into balls. 

9.Toss them in your pantry toppings, as if to seal these compartmentalized burdens.

10.Eat with bread and fresh herbs.

11.Store in olive oil—making sure that they are fully immersed, and store in a cool, dark place.

Photographer: Kathleen Hoare
Tablescape: Nahla Tabbaa and Nava Rizvi
Sherwani Dress: Studio Meru
Ceramic pieces: Nahla Tabbaa

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Nahla Tabbaa
Artist, potter, cook, gardener, educator, program curator, project manager, and culinary ethnographer.