To get the lowdown on halloumi's origins and the best ways to use it, we checked in with Atlanta, Georgia-based healthy chef Nancy Waldeck, founder of Taste and Savor Travels and whose passion for food is equaled by her love of travel. Halloumi cheese is one of her favorite ingredients.
"When I was in Serbia, not too far from Greece, my hostess served it several times, cooking it on the grill," she says. "I like it because it's a great meat substitute and because you don't have to use a lot of it to get a lot of flavor."
The Origin of the (Cheese) Species
Halloumi was first made on Cyprus, an island nation in the eastern Mediterranean, during the Byzantine era (395 to 1191 B.C.E.). Back then, farmers used either sheep's or goat's milk which was heated in a large pot along with rennet, enzymes found in the stomachs of herbivorous animals. Rennet causes the milk to separate into curds and whey. To make halloumi, the curds were pressed into blocks then, after they were cool, boiled again in the whey. The blocks of halloumi were preserved by soaking them overnight (or longer) in a salty brine, then packing the blocks of cheese in mint leaves to keep them fresh.
While food manufacturing technology has advanced since the Byzantine era, halloumi is made using the same ingredients and method. Today, it's possible to find halloumi made with vegetarian rennet and very often made with cow's milk. And though refrigeration is readily available in most parts of the world, halloumi is still packaged in brine with flecks of dried mint leaves sprinkled on top.
Waldeck says the way halloumi is made – the two-step process that cooks the milk, presses the whey out of the cheese then cooks the cheese again in the whey – is the reason so many people love it.
"The second cooking compounds the cheese and gives it a higher melting point," she says. "That's the secret."
Cooking Halloumi Ups the Flavor
A higher melting point means the cheese, which is usually sliced or cubed, holds its shape when it's heated. Waldeck says heat does something wonderful to the texture and flavor of the halloumi on the inside and the outside.
These days it's fairly easy to find halloumi in the specialty cheese sections of major grocery stores. If you can't find it there, check your local international food markets or Middle Eastern delis in your city. It's usually sold in 8-ounce bricks. Waldeck says just pat the halloumi dry, don't rinse it off before slicing it. The pieces should be about 1 inch to 1.5 inches (2.5 to 3.8 centimeters) thick and cooked either on a griddle, in a frying pan or on a grill. The internet is filled with halloumi recipes, such as this one for a warm winter vegetable salad with halloumi from Bon Appétit.
"My favorite way to cook it is to put it in a cast iron skillet," says Waldeck. "That way you get more of the brown crusty yumminess on the cheese. "You can eat halloumi raw, but the texture is kind of chewy and rubbery. When it's cooked, the closest thing I can come up with to compare it to is paneer (the soft Indian cheese) but it has more texture or flavor than paneer."
Some Pairings and Flavor Notes
It's the flavor Waldeck returns to. She recalled a time touring Greek, Turkish and Cypriot restaurants in Brooklyn, New York, and being served a salad that included watermelon and toasted halloumi. She liked the contrast of the sweet fruit and salty halloumi so much she created her own salad recipe, taking it a step further.
"I did a recipe with watermelon – and I know it sounds crazy, but beets – topped with grilled halloumi cheese, green onions and a citrus vinaigrette," she says. "You'll often see grilled halloumi and strawberries or other fruit in the Mediterranean region."
So, what's the difference between halloumi and that other fabulous Mediterranean favorite, feta? Waldeck says it goes back to how it's made. Unlike halloumi, feta is only cooked once when it's manufactured, making it softer and crumblier. You can't put feta directly on the grill and that makes halloumi unique.
"I use feta a lot, like halloumi, and for the same reason," Waldeck says. "You can use a little bit and get a lot of flavor."
How Healthy Is Halloumi?
While grilling or frying cheese sounds, well, magnificent, it also sounds seriously heart unhealthy, so we asked how healthy is halloumi? "It's pretty salty," Waldeck admitted, but quickly added, "it has a bunch of calcium."
A recommended serving size of halloumi is about 1 ounce or 28 grams. That single portion has 90 calories with 70 calories derived from fat. In the "good news-bad news" department it had 6 grams of protein and provided 20 percent of the daily requirement of calcium, but also had a whopping 297 milligrams of sodium and 20 milligrams of cholesterol. In other words, if you're on a low-salt, low-fat diet, it might be wise to steer clear of fried halloumi.
An Economic Powerhouse
For the people of Cyprus, halloumi is more than cheese, it's the country's second largest export. Dairy farmers call it "white gold" as the cheese pumps more than $270 million into the national economy. Halloumi is registered in the European Union (EU) as a Community Collective trademark, which designates the geographical origin of the goods and means no other product can be marketed within EU borders using that name.
For years, Cypriot authorities have tried to get the EU to recognize halloumi as a traditional product of Cyprus. Allowing the "Protected Designation of Origin" (the European Union's mark protecting indigenous agricultural products, foodstuffs, wine and spirits of member countries) would mean only halloumi made in Cyprus could be marketed under that name overseas. The application for the designation is caught up in a dispute in part because it limits the amount of cow's milk that may be used, which could affect exports or lead to job losses.
Fortunately, halloumi is still made, cooked and enjoyed by happy consumers the world over, including Waldeck, who recalled an encounter with a street vendor in the Provence region of France who was grilling halloumi on skewers.
"They would take the skewer of halloumi and put it in a pita pocket and slide the halloumi off the skewer," she said, "Then, instead of lettuce, they'd put a handful of fresh herbs in the pocket, and drizzle it with olive oil. The pita was warmed on the grill. It was so wonderful. For a euro you could buy a plastic cup of Rosé. It was the perfect lunch."