The Best Cheese No One Has Heard Of

If I had a top ten list of cheeses everyone should know about, Halloumi would probably be number one. Maybe a few folks have heard of or eaten it, but its insanely crowd-pleasing flavor and novel, non-melting texture make it something that should be part of every cookout. Halloumi offers the added bonus of accommodating vegetarians who aren’t going to for a burger or dog, or it can be quickly served up as a salty, savory first course for everyone. So what is it?

Halloumi is a traditional cheese of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which is located between Greece, Turkey and Syria. Cyprus is famous for its diverse flora; it encompasses vegetation zones of Europe, Asia and Africa and has more than 1,800 flowering plants that grow in the wild. The island is dominated by two mountain ranges, making it geographically well suited to goats and sheep who can traverse steep hillsides and snack on the diverse and flavor-rich plants. Although Halloumi is traditionally made from a blend of sheep and goat milk, many producers now add cow milk; disagreement over the exact ingredients has kept the cheese from receiving name-protected status as milk farmers fight over the right to be included in the recipe. That said, the traditional recipe produces a deep, oceanic flavor and tangy finish so avoid cow milk versions whenever possible. 

While Cypriots eat Halloumi fresh, as a table cheese, what makes it so amazing is that it doesn’t melt when heated. That means you can throw it on the grill, or fry strips on the stovetop, without losing the firm, rectangular shape and squeaky, chewy texture. Cooked, Halloumi is the love child of fried cheese curds and Mozzarella sticks, minus the breading. Another perk of searing Halloumi is that the edges caramelize into a deep brown crust, imparting a sweet finish to the cheese’s natural brininess. 

Grilled Halloumi takes lovingly to a squeeze of lemon, glug of olive oil and showering of whatever fresh herbs you’ve got lying around. Also consider a platter of grilled Halloumi strips atop grilled vegetables like peppers, zucchini and eggplant. It’s fabulous tossed with watermelon if you fancy something less expected, or you can replace chicken or steak atop your next bowl of salad greens. I temper Halloumi’s straightforward saltiness with crisp, cooling white wines like Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc but it holds its own against bitter, refreshing IPAs. You can even play with sugar and fruit flavors and opt to drink your watermelon salad in the form of a Paloma or margarita (though you may wish to skip the salted rim; let the Halloumi do that work for you).

Some Halloumi is speckled with bits of mint, a holdover from the days when herb-wrapped blocks kept better and longer than those without. I’m a traditionalist, though, and opt for a plain Halloumi when I can get it so there’s nothing to distract from the squeaky, layered chew and universally noshable flavor. If you can’t find Halloumi, the next best thing is Paneer but expect a much milder, sweeter flavor (thanks, cow milk) and far less intense salty punch.