Every time I’d approach an Arabic buffet table, I’d heap massive scoops of hummus, baba ganoush and mutabbal on my plate. The one dip that would get nothing more than a curious sideways glance would be labneh, white, usually traced with a runny crescent of olive oil. It had confounded me as a child, making me wonder why such gloopy sourness would ever be relevant on my plate.
What I didn’t realise was that labneh, nothing more complex than strained yogurt, is a bud of flavours waiting for the right accompaniments to bloom. The first time this occurred to me was while I was entertaining a plate of cheese patties – fatayer – at Al Reef Bakery. I spotted the baker smearing labneh across the surface of a warm manousheh pie, and then piling on fresh crunchy vegetables before sealing the pie shut.
I took the next step forward by switching my regular cheese manousheh order at the neighbourhood bakery to a labneh one. The first bite sang of spring. This ploddingly creamy dip had finally emerged from its bland winter, joyfully invigorated with a meandering stream of olive oil, crisp julienned cucumbers, juicy slivers of tomato, sunny mint sprigs, briny olives and fragrant za’atar (thyme) scattered like pollen through its creamy -expanse.
Since then, this elemental labneh and veggie combination has stood by me time and again, in the face of a hopeless stack of leftover bread from a Lebanese takeout meal, a stray breadstick in the pantry seeking a creamy companion, or a bland turkey sandwich, begging for a non-mustardy condiment. Labneh doesn’t appease me on its own, but when swirled around a rudimentary green salad, za’atar, olive oil and some crusty bread, it can creamily outshine its fellow dips on the buffet table.
Try the labneh manousheh pie at Al Reef Bakery in Za’abeel (04 396 8999) or at Breakfast to Breakfast in Deira (04 222 3566)
Arva Ahmed blogs about hidden food gems in Old Dubai at www.ILiveinaFryingPan.com