There's no point in describing to the uninitiated the taste of Shanklish. It's unlike anything else you've ever eaten in your life. It's simply much tastier yet defies description. From a geohistorical perspective, Shanklish is purely a Syrian invention. It can also be found in the countryside of Akkar (adjacent to Tartous) in the north of Lebanon. Different versions of Shanklish are contrived all the way across the Syrian coast heading east to the Homs area. The rest of Syria only knows how to eat Shanklish, of inferior quality mostly, but nothing about the traditions behind this pungent delicacy. Syria, along with the rest of the Middle East, is known for its white cheeses. The city of Hama and its surrounding countryside produce the best variety of white cheese in the world. The Damascenes eat most of it no doubt and have the tendency, a little like the Lebanese, to claim that the universe actually evolves around them. So once abroad and nostalgic, they start missing the cheese of Damascus, not of Hama, not of Syria, mind you, but of Damascus. We accommodate their vanity because they are older than us, Damascus being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, you know. Since I broke my silence and spoke of the Damascenes let me continue with the Lebanese. I have found on one of their Phoenician websites Shanklish being referred to as Lebanese Cheese Balls. Oh, my God! I was really ROFL for the last 5 minutes. I just got back on my chair again with tears in my eyes. Where was I?!
OK, I got my revenge back. I might have exposed myself to a whole new wave of attack, but since they don’t have much water in Damascus, let alone a sea, it would be a dry wave anyway. … One moment, I have to get back on my chair and wipe my tears again. I’m laughing so hard at my own ingenious jokes today. I’m so funny (or at least think I am).
Back to the serious topic at hand, Shanklish. I will explain how the basic version and often the best tasting one is made. The process of making great Shanklish involves intensive manual labor, plenty of time and the lowest possible material cost. When you reverse this natural process by using a blender, a refrigerator and fancy ingredients you end up with junk. Unfortunately, most of what is available on the market, even in Tartous, is of the second type. The given reason is that there is no way to meet the high demand except by expediting production. I strongly believe that we, in Syria, have failed to make the transition from great homemade food and beverage processing to mass production while maintaining high quality. We are still unable to make superior wine although we have outstanding grapes. The genuine vineyard in both its traditional and modern sense is absent. Fine wine connoisseurs would not mind buying an expensive imported bottle. There is no local classy alternative because producers are too short-sighted. They have taken the easy way out and stubbornly persist in bringing forth cheap mass produced dull tasting wine.
Fresh cow milk is transformed into yogurt using a basic fermentation process. Milk is heated and brought to boil while continuously (not stopping for an instant) being stirred. As soon as it starts boiling it is removed from the heat source and let to cool at room temperature. Once it reaches the temperature at which you can stick your finger in while counting to ten without burning yourself, half a cup of previously available yogurt is added and stirred. The pot is covered and wrapped with a blanket to insulate it and let it cool down as slowly as possible for a period of twelve hours. We now have delicious fresh yogurt. If you ever wondered how to make your own batch of yogurt this is it. Place it in the fridge and consume it within three to four days. To make Shanklish, however, the process has barely begun. The yogurt is poured into an elongated container (pottery is the best). The old lady (this is the original image I can conjure in my mind) sits on the floor, covers the top of the container and starts shaking it front to back. Every ten minutes or so she stops, uncovers the container and skims the butter which has formed on top (this is how you get real wholesome butter). She would continue for some time until half of the butter is removed and the yogurt has become low in fat (partially skimmed). I need to emphasize here that commercial quality shanklish is skimmed all the way until there is no butter left in it. The skimmed yogurt (called Shenineh) is poured in a cooking pot and is heated until it breaks down into bluish water on top and a residual white substance at the bottom. Once it cools down it’s discharged into a cotton piece of cloth similar to a pillow case and left to hang over the sink. After twelve hours most of the water would have disappeared and we are left with the Arish. Salt is added and the Arish is rolled into tennis-balls-sized individual pieces. To enhance the taste spices and red pepper might be added at this stage, but again if you let nature take its course over time, they are absolutely not needed. Over a piece of cloth the balls are left to dry in the sun, normally on the roof of the house for about ten days. By now they are completely dry and might have some rot on the exterior. They are scraped clean and immersed in a bag of thyme so that it sticks on the surface of the balls. The Shanklish is moved indoors and placed in air-tight containers, or better yet, covered with cloth and wrapped in canvas to let it further ferment slowly in the dark. The period of this stage determines the final outcome. Mild white high-quality Shanklish could be eaten anytime after a week. Diehard, dark, foot smelly, most delicious Shanklish is kept for at least one month. It is served with virgin olive oil, fresh onions and a glass of Arak, or tea for the faint of heart, and eaten with the hand with Tannour bread.
So now you probably know why it’s so difficult to find the connoisseur version of great Shanklish in your local supermarket. The process is a pain in the ass, but believe me, it’s worth every single day in the making. I am a Shanklish gourmet. I don’t mind riding my motorcycle to a distant village nested in the mountains of Tartous and stopping to ask an old bent lady on a narrow cobblestone road. “Do you have some good Shanklish Ya Khalti (my aunt)?” I would ask. “Ya 3ain Khaltak ( You, the eye of your aunt) where are you from?” she would inquire.
-“I’m from Tartous and I heard that you make the best Shanklish here.”
-“Ayleh?! (Exclamation!), you came all the way from Tartous for Shanklish, I would not let you go back empty handed for sure. I have may be 4 or 5 balls, less than a kilo perhaps but Tikram 3aynak (your eye is welcome) come on follow me to my house.”
With my trophy, I head back home. I might make another stop to talk to an old man strolling with a cane in hand and ask him for a liter or two of some homemade Arak he had drawn himself. With my dinner in the bag I ride west. The evening will be perfect, hope you can join me someday.