Cheese holds an esteemed place in Middle Eastern cuisine and culture. Many regions have their own signature cheeses that feature prominently in local dishes. Two of the most beloved are akawi and halloumi.
These semisoft white brined cheeses have become popular worldwide. Foodies and home cooks everywhere have fallen for their unique textures and versatile applications.
But what exactly sets these cheeses apart? Let's take a deep dive into their backstories, production methods, and tasting notes. We'll also highlight how best to use them in your cooking.
Key Takeaway: Akawi and halloumi are both popular Middle Eastern cheeses with unique textures and flavors. While they share some similarities, halloumi is saltier, denser, and better for grilling due to its higher melting point. Akawi is softer, milder, and melts easily, making it great for cooking. Their differing textures and tastes make them suitable for different dishes and cooking methods.
Origins and History
Akawi cheese traces its roots to Akkā, an ancient port city in northern Israel and Lebanon. The surrounding region was part of Greater Syria when akawi emerged.
It became known as Akkawi cheese or Ackawi cheese due to its origins. "Akkawi" translates to "from Akka."
Akawi is common in Middle Eastern cuisine, especially:
This fresh white cheese has a history spanning several centuries. Traditional techniques are still used in villages surrounding Akkā.
Halloumi also has a long pedigree. It hails from Cyprus and has been produced there since medieval Byzantine times.
The name "halloumi" or "Hellim" comes from the Turkish word "hellim," meaning "cheese." Its current form emerged around the 19th century.
Both cheeses are products of the Levant region and broader Middle East. But their unique identities stem from local cultures and food traditions.
Ingredients and Manufacturing Process
Akawi and halloumi are made using simple, fresh ingredients. But their production methods differ in small ways that impact the final product.
To make akawi cheese:
- Cow, goat, or sheep milk is pasteurized and curdled using rennet.
- The curds are drained and pressed, then soaked in brine.
- Akawi matures quickly, in 1-3 weeks.
Halloumi is made by:
- Curdling goat, sheep, or cow milk with rennet.
- Draining the curds and kneading them to release more whey.
- Shaping the curds into balls, then flattening and pressing them.
- Soaking the cheese in brine for preservation and flavor.
- Matured for 1-3 months.
The extra kneading and shaping help give halloumi its distinctive texture. This distinguishes it from the softer, looser akawi cheese.
Both cheeses may include mint for added flavor. The animal's diet and breed impact the milk's quality and cheese's final taste.
Taste, Texture, and Aroma Notes
When tasting akawi and halloumi side-by-side, you'll notice clear differences:
- Akawi has a mild, delicate flavor. It tastes bright and salty, with a subtly tangy lactic note. The soft, smooth texture is flexible when fresh. With age, it becomes firmer but still melts easily. Akawi is moist with a creamy mouthfeel. Its natural white color darkens with age.
- Halloumi has a much saltier, robust taste. It is tangy and earthy, with characteristic salty squeakiness when bitten into. The dense, rubbery texture resists melting. Instead, halloumi softens and bronzes when cooked. It is generally whiter than akawi, with a drier, crumbly bite.
So akawi is milder and softer, while halloumi is saltier and has a springy bite. Their aromas differ too:
- Akawi smells sweet, creamy, and tangy. Notes of fresh milk and grassy hay linger. As it ages, nutty and yeasty notes develop.
- Halloumi has a pungent aroma, with a sheepy, barnyard quality. Grassy citrus notes peek through the salty, concentrated milk scent. Mint and herbs enhance the smell.
These sensory differences stem from their ingredients, processes, and aging. Together, they inform how each cheese is best used.
Akawi and halloumi melt, soften, absorb flavors, and brown differently when heated. This suits them for different applications:
Cooking with Akawi
- Akawi melts smoothly when cooked, so it's perfect for:
- Grilled cheese
- Cheese sauces
- Filling for baked pastries like fatayer
- It provides subtle creaminess and tang. Akawi lets other ingredients shine.
- Akawi's mild flavor pairs well with spices, herbs, meats, and produce.
Cooking with Halloumi
- Halloumi holds its shape when cooked, browning and softening without melting. This makes it ideal for:
- Adding to kebabs
- Serving with produce
- Its salty punch stands up to bold ingredients. The squeaky texture adds interest.
- Halloumi's low moisture helps it brown without sticking or falling apart.
In terms of dish styles, akawi suits:
- Baked savory pastries (fatayer, sambousek)
While halloumi excels in:
- Skewered and grilled dishes
- Breakfast dishes
- Seafood pairings
- Vegetable pairings
Think of akawi for melting applications, and halloumi for pan-frying or grilling. Both work in salads.
Key Takeaway: Akawi melts smoothly so excels in cooked dishes like pizza and pastries. Halloumi browns and softens without melting, so shines when pan-fried, grilled, or skewered.
Akawi and halloumi also differ in their ideal flavor pairings:
Akawi pairs well with:
- Herbs like mint, dill, basil
- Spices like sumac, cumin, paprika
Halloumi calls for bolder flavors:
- Lemon wedges
- Chili flakes
- Hearty greens
So akawi matches lighter ingredients, while halloumi balances intense flavors.
Buying and Storage
When shopping for akawi and halloumi:
- Seek out artisanal or imported brands for authentic flavor and texture. Mass-market versions tend to differ.
- Examine the ingredients list and choose plain, simple cheeses. Some commercial brands add thickeners and preservatives that change the texture.
- Avoid crumbles or crumbs - moisture loss causes this. Some breaking on the surface is normal.
- Select packages with minimal liquid. Excess brine indicates the cheese is very young.
- Refrigerate upon returning home, as these are fresh cheeses.
- Keep refrigerated always, as both cheeses are perishable.
- If brined, keep immersed in the liquid to prevent drying.
- Wrap tightly in plastic to minimize air exposure and prevent drying.
- Use within 1 week of opening for best flavor and texture.
Refrigeration stops further aging and fermentation that would alter the original taste and mouthfeel.
Health Benefits and Nutrition
As fresh dairy products, akawi and halloumi offer nutritional benefits:
- Excellent source of protein - around 20g per 100g
- Rich in calcium and phosphorus for bone health
- Packed with B vitamins like riboflavin, B12, and niacin
- Provide essential amino acids
- Supply conjugated linoleic acid
- Loaded with vitamin A
- Contain zinc, selenium, and magnesium
However, some downsides exist too:
- High in saturated fat - can be as much as 25g per 100g
- High sodium levels - halloumi contains over 50% of the daily value per 100g
- Contain lactose, so not suitable for the lactose intolerant
In moderation, both cheeses can be part of a balanced diet. But those with dietary restrictions or sodium concerns should take care.
Key Differences Between Akawi and Halloumi
To summarize the major differences:
|Softer, smooth texture||Dense, squeaky texture|
|Melts easily||Holds shape when cooked|
|Mild, delicate, tangy flavor||Robust, salty flavor|
|Pairs well with herbs and spices||Stands up to bold ingredients|
|Moist, high moisture||Drier, lower moisture|
|Better for cooking and baking||Better for pan-frying and grilling|
Their unique identities make them suited for different dishes and cooking methods. Both offer delicious taste and nutrition though.
Key Takeaway: Akawi and halloumi differ distinctly in texture, melting qualities, flavor, aromas, and ideal pairings. This makes them suited to different culinary uses. But both provide wonderful taste and nutrition.
How to Substitute Akawi for Halloumi (and Vice Versa)
Want to substitute one for the other in recipes? Here are some tips:
To replace halloumi with akawi:
- Use 25% less akawi to account for extra moisture
- Increase saltiness with spices, olives, lemon zest, etc.
- Adjust cooking method - bake, grill briefly, or add later in sautéing
- Add wheat starch (1 tsp per cup) to absorb moisture
- Expect greater melting, browning, and softening
To substitute akawi for halloumi:
- Increase amount by 25% to compensate for moisture
- Pat akawi dry before cooking to improve browning
- Chill akawi first to firm it up before cooking
- Cook gently and watch closely to prevent meltingAway
- Consider a complementary flavor boost like za'atar or herbs
- Note that akawi may melt more than halloumi would
With these adaptations, you can swap one for the other successfully. But for best results, choose the cheese best suited to the dish.
How to Make Akawi and Halloumi at Home
Store-bought cheeses make life easier. But enterprising home cooks can also craft their own akawi or halloumi.
- High-quality milk - sheep and goat are traditional
- Rennet to curdle the milk
- Cheese molds
- Cheesecloth for draining
- Brine solution for soaking
- Herbs like dried mint (optional)
- Time, patience, and practice
Refer to traditional cheesemaking guides for detailed steps. Key high-level pointers:
- Curdle the milk gently at warm temperatures between 90-105°F
- Halloumi requires more kneading and pressing to achieve its texture
- Air-dry freshly molded cheeses before brining
- Use a 7-10% salt brine solution and maintain proper acidity
- Soak cheeses for the right duration - 12-24 hours up to 2 months
- Age cheeses in climate-controlled conditions
- Handle cheeses carefully to avoid damage
- Ensure ideal humidity levels are maintained
It takes skill and numerous rounds to master the intricacies. But tradition-minded cooks find the hands-on process rewarding.
Enjoying Akawi and Halloumi Cheeses
However you get your hands on them, akawi and halloumi offer delicious ways to elevate Middle Eastern recipes. Their unique identities make them special in their own right.
Akawi imparts gentle creaminess and subtle salt. Its melty quality makes it right at home in cooked dishes.
Halloumi boasts full-flavored saltiness with a distinctive squeak. Its sturdy texture allows fantastic browning in pans and on grills.
From the Lebanese mountains to Cypriot hillsides, these cheeses carry culinary traditions forward. Their lasting appeal worldwide pays homage to the lands and cultures where they originated.
Akawi and halloumi emerge from the storied food cultures of the Levant. Though they share similarities, each cheese boasts a unique identity informed by local history and tradition.
Key differences set them apart - namely their texture, melting properties, recommended cooking methods and pairings. Akawi's milder taste and smooth melting quality suits it to dishes like pastries, omelets and sandwiches. Halloumi's dense texture that holds its shape when cooked make it perfect for grilling, pan-frying, and vegetable pairings.
Despite being brined cheeses, both deliver great nutritional value through ample protein, calcium, B vitamins and more. Incorporating them thoughtfully into Middle Eastern recipes allows you to enjoy the best of both deliciously distinctive cheeses. Their quintessential flavors will transport your palate - even if enjoyed far from their original homelands.