The Cypriot cheese halloumi, which is not well known here, has a surprising texture. Made from sheep’s milk or a blend of sheep’s, goat’s, and cow’s milk, halloumi isn’t creamy or smooth or runny, nor does it taste buttery, grassy, or nutty. It’s a semi-firm, somewhat dry cheese, a tad salty, and even a bit squeaky when chewed. What makes it unusual is that it is typically eaten heated, and unlike other cheeses, halloumi doesn’t melt.
The cheese softens with heat but never oozes because it’s made from cooked curd. You can put it into a hot skillet or set it on the grill (as it’s done in Cyprus and Greece). Halloumi is most delicious when the surface is caramelized and lightly crisp and the interior is tender. A splash of lemon juice cuts the saltiness. Eat it soon after cooking as the cheese firms up and becomes hard and rubbery.
From its origins in Cyprus, halloumi traveled to Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East. At Cafe Mangal in Wellesley, Istanbul-raised chef Mehmet Ozargun, who prepares both traditional and contemporary Turkish dishes, offers a warm appetizer of pastirma-wrapped halloumi. Paper-thin slices of salt-cured, dried beef enclose finger-size rectangles of cheese; the bundles are baked and served with tomatoes, capers, and basil. “I wanted a cheese that can hold its shape,” says Ozargun. The dish, he says, “doesn’t require too much preparation, but the ingredients are so important.”
Cheeses such as feta and goat often top Mediterranean and Middle Eastern vegetable salads, but halloumi can work just as well. It complements late summer vegetables and fruits, particularly those with acidity or sweet juiciness (tomatoes, watermelon, apples) or sweetness and crunch (carrots, beets, fennel).
Israeli native Tzurit Or, owner of Tatte Bakery & Cafe in Kendall Square and Tatte Fine Cookies & Cakes in Brookline, cooks slices of the cheese on a hot griddle until golden, then drapes the slices over a colorful salad of crunchy ingredients, including carrots, radishes, and apples. Golden raisins add a contrasting sweetness. “You need the sweet with the halloumi,” she says.
Halloumi can be a substitute for meat in many dishes and pairs well with vegetables, salads, or eggs. The next time you’re craving a grilled cheese without bread, you’ll know what to do.