String cheese. The seemingly unexceptional lunchbox snack instantly transports us back to our playground days, and no matter how processed the cheesy stick might taste, it remains an nostalgic favorite. What child doesn’t love a good excuse to play with their food?
But why should kids get to have all the fun? Is there a way of elevating the cherished childhood munchie into an acceptable adult lunch? The answer, professional friends, is Armenian string cheese.
The wonderful thing about braided string cheese is that it has a highly sophisticated flavor AND the fun of pulling apart each individual cheese strand. The Middle Eastern classic is common at family mealtimes, and can typically be found as part of the elaborate meze table, which includes a large sampling of hors d’oeurves-styled dishes. The string cheese can be eaten on its own, but is often wrapped in a pita and paired with cured meats, olives, roasted vegetables, or a simple spread.
Somewhat similar to Mozzarella in mild saltiness and squeaky texture, the thing that sets Armenian string cheese apart are its savory seasonings. Recognizable for a speckling of black nigella seeds throughout its silky strands, the unique flavor of Armenian string cheese comes from the use of a rich spice blend called mahlab. Mahlab is primarily used in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking, and is made from the powder of dried cherry seeds. The floral flavor of Mahlab has a bitter finish, giving Armenian string cheese its signature taste.
Another iconic feature of this Armenian cheese is its thick braiding. The best way to eat this cheese is in wispy string form; however, it is not typically purchased this way from the market. Jack Bassmagian, owner of Arax Market in Watertown, MA, says that there is correct way of stringing Armenian cheese: “I give it a good rinse under very cold water, breaking the braid into even smaller strands as I work. And, I dry the large strands on a big kitchen towel to remove excess moisture that might soften the cheese.” Because the cheese is preserved in a salty liquid, Bassmagian says that not only will rinsing help to break it down during the stringing process, but the water will also wash away the extra saltiness that the brine imparts on the cheese. Make sure to use cold water, though! Warm or hot water will melt the cheese, and rinsing it in cold water for too long will eventually alter the consistency.
Stringing your own Armenian cheese might seem like more work than buying those convenient generic cheese sticks from the supermarket, but it is a labor of love that everyone will be sure to appreciate. So why not add a little childhood fun to your next meal and get creative with string cheese.Photo Credit: tasteofbeirut.com