buried cheese | gubta mtumarta

buried cheese on toast

My grandmother and I recently went about solving a cheese mystery. On her family's farm in north-eastern Syria, they would make a homemade cheese that they would bury under ground in clay pots. They called the cheese gubta mtumarta, which means "buried cheese" in Assyrian. The name tells you more about the way it's stored, rather than giving any hint of the kinds of cheeses used, which didn't help us much in backwards engineering her family's recipe. But luckily, we had some information to go on, and we headed over to the Whole Foods cheese section to try to get to the bottom of things.

We knew that her family's gubta mtumarta involved caraway seeds and some combination of three cheeses crumbled together. She remembered the method of preparation really well and remembered lots of details about the cheeses they would use, but it's really difficult to figure out what cheeses to buy at a supermarket cheese counter in order to best emulate the flavors and textures of farm-made, unnamed Syrian cheeses.

caraway seeds

Here was the information we had: The first cheese tasted like feta, but without the brine. It was a not-too-salty, medium-soft cheese that added a creamy texture to the mix, but without adding too much moisture. It bound the crumbly, hard cheeses together. The second cheese was a lot like parmesan--very salty, dry, and crumbly. The third cheese was similarly crumbly, but not quite as salty or hard, with a subtler flavor. The two harder cheeses would get ground up into little pieces and mixed together with the creamier cheese to form a crumbly paste. The harder cheeses would add enough salt to help preserve the softer one and the whole paste would get mixed together with caraway seeds to add a really lovely, distinct flavor that most Americans associate with rye bread.

manouri cheese
parmesan cheese
provolone piccante

We chose three Mediterranean cheeses for our recipe for gubta mtumarta. For the first, soft cheese, we chose manouri cheese, which is similar to feta, but without the brine and strong feta flavor. The second cheese was easy, since parmesan was the obvious choice. For the third cheese, we found a hard, aged provolone piccante with a little less salt than parmesan and a slightly higher moisture content.

We minced the cheeses finely and combined them with the caraway, and when she tried the finished product she said that she couldn't wait to deliver some to her brother, Badel, because it was exactly like the gubta mtumarta that she remembered. While I never tried the gubta from their farm, I can confirm that this recipe is beyond delicious spread on toast, melted on a burger, sprinkled on biryani, or added to tabbouleh. On Easter, Yemmah Sourma would put a little cheese in the center of one of the samooneh before baking the rolls, and whichever kid got the cheesy samoon got an extra little gift for Easter. But if you ask me, getting the only samoon full of gubta mtumarta is a gift in itself.

buried cheese
buried cheese

Gubta Mtumarta

2.5 ounces parmigiano reggiano (or another hard, salty cheese, like pecorino romano)
4 ounces provolone piccante (or another sharp, somewhat salty cheese, like an aged asiago)
5 ounces manouri (or another soft, mild, crumbly cheese, like ricotta salata or a mild feta)
1 tablespoon caraway seeds

  • Mince the parmigiano reggiano and the provolone piccante (or other cheeses, if using) by hand or with a food processor. Don't over-process the hard cheeses--there should be some crumbles that are the size of grains of rice and some the size of grains of sand.

  • Once the hard cheeses have been ground up, crumble in the manouri (or other cheese, if using) and combine just until everything comes together into a coarse paste.

  • Stir in the caraway seeds and store the cheese in a jar in the refrigerator. The length of time you can store the gubta will vary, depending on the kind of cheese you're using, but with the three listed above, you can count on at least a week.

If you'd like to buy a commercial gubta mtumarta, Buried Cheese of Chicago sells their own family recipe.
If you're looking for related recipes, try my
mac and gubta mtumarta and gubta mtumarta monkey bread.

buried cheese

kebab burgers | kebabeh gu samooneh

Kebab

My mom is always cooking something delicious for someone. Last night, I called her to talk and she was chopping tabbouleh for my sister's boyfriend just because she knows it's his favorite and wanted to send some over. She plans huge family dinners all the time, and when she has to plan a big meal at the last minute, you'd never know that she didn't spend all week cooking. The secret to her effortless entertaining is the Assyrian kebab.

Kebab
Kebab
Sumac, parsley, and green onions
tomatoes and cucumbers

The key to a good kebab is to completely overload it with herbs. This is what makes it both easy and impressively flavorful. My family uses a ton of cilantro and a decent amount of green onions, so that every bite has an intensely herby flavor. Feel free to experiment with this recipe, as long as you capture the essence of kebabeh—that is, the intensely herby flavor.

We usually serve them on samoon bread, which is available in many Middle Eastern markets, and if you can't find it, you can always make your own samoon. But if you don't feel inclined to bake your own, you can use any other bun or bread. Assyrian food is a diaspora cuisine, so it's not unheard of to eat a kebab on a parker house roll or a Hawaiian roll. We shape kebabs into an oval shape, which nicely matches the oval shape of samoon, but you can use whatever shape makes sense for the bread you have.

My family often eats kebabs plain, but you can add a lot of toppings to make it more of a special occasion food. We sometimes add sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, as well as a dry salsa of sumac, parsley, and green onions.

Kebab buffet

Kebabeh gu Samooneh

also known as lula kebab or lula kebob
yield: 12 patties
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PDF to print

  • 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped green onions *

  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon sumac (or 2 tablespoons lemon juice)

  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt (or to taste)

  • 2 1/2 pounds ground beef (a combination of chuck and sirloin, or a mix that is about 80% lean)

  • 1 cup chopped cilantro leaves *

  • 1/2 cup chopped green onions *

  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt (or 1 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt/table salt), or to taste

  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste

  • About 2 to 3 thinly sliced plum tomatoes (for serving)

  • About 2 to 3 thinly sliced small Persian cucumbers (for serving)

  • Samoon or any other kind of bread (lawash, pita, or even burger buns all work great)

  1. For the dry salsa: Combine parsley, green onions, sumac, and 1/4 teaspoon salt, and set aside.

  2. Preheat a gas or charcoal grill to medium high heat (or turn your oven's broiler on 5 to 10 minutes before you're ready to cook the patties).

  3. Combine the ground beef with the cilantro, green onions, kosher salt, and black pepper. Mix everything just until it comes together. Do not over-mix or your kebabs will be tough and rubbery.

  4. Shape the kebabs into approximately 12 ovals.

  5. Grill or broil for about 5 to 7 minutes per side until they are cooked all the way through. **

  6. Serve the kebabs on samoon (or your bread of choice), topping each with a heaping teaspoon of the salsa, and a couple slices of tomato and cucumber.

* For grocery shopping purposes, this normally comes out to about 1 bunch cilantro and 1 bunch green onions (with the onion bunch split between the two components of the dish).
** Kebabs are most often served medium-well or well, but you can serve yours medium rare if that's what you prefer.

Kebab