Wondering what is halloumi cheese? Here’s an in-depth look at halloumi, what it tastes like, its history, and what to serve it with.
From the humble mac and cheese to the crusty cheese on our pizzas, and even to the sliced derivatives found in cheeseburgers, it’s very hard to imagine a world without cheese.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if your typical turophile drew a blank if asked about Halloumi.
So what is Halloumi cheese?
This little-known cheese variant hails from the Mediterranean Island of Cyprus and is prized for its exceptionally high melting point which makes it suitable for frying, grilling, and even baking.
This makes it useful for far more recipes than other cheeses. 1
Cyprus is thought to have first produced Halloumi circa 300AD. 2
Any other details on its history are sketchy at best, but its mysterious past does not change the fact that it is the ultimate grilling cheese!
It is traditionally made from a mixture of goat and sheep’s milk curdled with Rennet, which is a non-acidic enzyme normally found in the stomachs of animals such as cows; though plant-based Rennet exists today! 3
People who prefer to take the vegan route would only need to check the packaging or check with the retailer to make sure their Halloumi is vegan-friendly.
After the application of Rennet to the milk, Cypriot cheese makers would then mold the resulting curd in salt-soaked cloth in pieces about the size of a small purse.
Once firm, they are poached in salted whey and then brined. 4
This process increases its longevity: Even when left out in the open Halloumi will typically stay safe to eat for up to two weeks.
But, if carefully repackaged and left frozen, it would amazingly stay fit for consumption for up to a year. 5
This actually begs the question: How did people store Halloumi before refrigeration was invented? Halloumi has been around for thousands of years, and it was traditionally stored by covering it in olive oil in a glass jar together with any flavoring such as herbs and chili. v
Interestingly, you can still find it stored this way today if you were to go shopping for Halloumi at a grocer that makes their own product in Cyprus.
Fun fact: Did you know that Halloumi makes a squeak when bitten into?
Halloumi is also known as ‘squeaky cheese’; aptly named for that distinct sound.
Its trademark squeak is produced when two surfaces, one of which has to be rubbery, are slid against each other, such as when one draws their finger firmly across a rubber inflatable. 6
Also, you may have been wondering why I’ve been referring to Halloumi with a capital “H” instead of lowercase such as cheddar, mozzarella, or manchego (unless of course the cheese has been named after a city or country, in which case they would be written capitalized, like in Brie, Camembert, and Gouda).
The reason behind this is the word “Halloumi” is in fact, a collective trademark registered by the European Union Intellectual Property Office, jointly held by the Halloumi Foundation of Cyprus and a few other government bodies. 7 8
Thus, Halloumi Cheese can only be made and called by that name if it comes from Cyprus.
But what’s with all the fuss over a bit of cheese?
This is because Halloumi is the proverbial big cheese in Cyprus, and is regarded by some to be one of its national treasures. 9
Exports of the Mediterranean Island’s ‘white gold’ were worth £229 million (approx. $295M USD) in 2020; this value is expected to double by the year 2027. 10
That’s pretty impressive considering the fact that we are referring to a single product, produced by a country only 5,896 kilometers squared in size, with a population of a little over a million people.
The State of Texas in contrast is a whopping 695,662 square kilometers!
That’s absolutely mind-boggling!
As you can already tell, this article is all about Halloumi and what makes it special.
We’ve also included a few recipes for you to try out if you’ve decided to delve deeper into the Halloumi rabbit hole.
So let’s dive in and explore more of the other facts you need to know about this extraordinary cheese!
What does Halloumi cheese taste like?
According to murrayscheese.com, Halloumi has a “mild, briny, and herbal” flavor.
Those lucky enough to have given it a taste have compared it to feta, and have likened the consistency to that of curds.
Since Halloumi is commonly brined in salt water, it retains its rich flavor to the core, eliminating the need for any seasoning at all before or after cooking, whereas, for all of its hype, mozzarella skews bland, depending heavily on its breading and sauces for flavor 11
Its unique production process gives it a spongy, meaty texture which vegetarians are sure to appreciate, as this makes Halloumi an excellent meat substitute.
And that’s a win for sure!
Oh! And have we mentioned it retains its shape even at high temperatures?
Now you don’t have to worry about seeing a sorry puddle lying at the bottom of your grill if your cooking timer is a minute or two off!
You can even sear the outside to get a nice golden crust.
These properties are more than enough for Halloumi to have earned its reputation as the “ultimate grilling cheese”. ii
What is Halloumi cheese similar to?
The vast majority of people who have eaten this wonderfully flavored cheese would agree: Halloumi is unique; there is just no other taste like it. 12
We wholeheartedly concur.
But if we must enumerate some cheeses closest to Halloumi just in case some Thanos-like deity decides to snap their fingers and erase Halloumi from existence, here are your best bets:
Feta cheese is from Greece which is also in the Mediterranean.
It is also similarly made with goat or sheep’s milk (or a combination of the two).
And since they mostly share the same ingredients, feta is the closest you can get to Halloumi taste-wise.
But that is where the similarities end.
Feta and Halloumi both have similar ingredients, but differ in their respective production processes.
Where Halloumi is spongy and tends to keep its shape, feta is crumbly.But if the closest taste to Halloumi is what you’re looking for, feta is your top pick. 13
Queso Panela, from Mexico, is made from cow’s milk.
It’s white and has a fresh taste.
It is used in a variety of Mexican dishes like quesadillas and tacos.
Queso Panela qualifies as an excellent Halloumi substitute because of its firm texture.
Not firm enough to grill with, but firm enough to fry with.
It can be cut into sticks or cubes and can be crumbled as well. xiii
Paneer, from India, is made with cow’s milk and is very popular in Indian cuisine.
It makes a great Halloumi substitute due to its high melting point and texture: high enough that it can be reliably used in soups and remain intact.
It has a mild, milky flavor, which explains why it can also be used in place of tofu. xiii
PROVOLONE DOLCE / PICANTE
Provolone is an Italian cheese of two kinds: dolce and picante.
It’s a sweet cheese made from cow’s milk.
The main difference between the two is that picante is aged longer, thus resulting in a stronger flavor.
They are similar to Halloumi in the way they can all be cubed.
Thus, the provolone variants can substitute Halloumi in dishes that require Halloumi cubes. xiii
QUESO PARA FREIR
Queso para Freir, from the Dominican Republic, is similar to Halloumi in that they both can withstand high temperatures, with Halloumi only bearing a slight lead.
This makes Queso para Freir one of the best substitutes since it can also be grilled such as Halloumi can, though greater care must be taken in the undertaking thereof as it is more crumbly and has a lower melting point than Halloumi.
It is made from pasteurized cow’s milk and is soft, mild, and creamy. xiii
What to eat Halloumi cheese with?
Opinions will always vary on what goes best with a particular food.
But most people agree that Halloumi cheese goes best with certain snacks that are also of Mediterranean origin. ii
And these usually are:
Halloumi has always been a staple in Greek cuisine.If you’ve ever had the pleasure of dining at a traditional Greek taverna, you would have more than likely spotted someone enjoying a variety of smaller plates as part of a large meal which usually includes grilled Halloumi alongside the vibrant and colorful Greek salad.
What does the average person in Cyprus do when an unexpected guest arrives and needs to quickly get some food to serve?
Throw together a Mezze platter!
The typical platter usually consists of your choice of cold cuts, olives, and any salad served alongside some freshly grilled Halloumi. xiv
A very easy option for people looking for a quick snack would be pita bread with dips.
Just toast the bread and serve it together with Halloumi and your favorite dip.People usually opt for Hummus or Tzatziki, but really, any dip of your choice would do! xiv
CHICKEN SOUVLAKI / GYROS
The main difference between souvlaki and gyros is that souvlaki are skewers and gyros are roasted vertically on a rotisserie style barbecue served in pita bread, similar to the doner of Turkey and shawarma from the Middle East.
They are an absolute must-have when visiting the Mediterranean!
They’re perfect for anything from a quick snack from a roadside vendor to part of a multi-course meal from the local luxury hotel.
And the only thing that would make an already great dish even greater would be a side dish of the humble Halloumi. xiv
But these delicacies may prove to be a challenge to get ahold of for people not from the Mediterranean or the EU.
To give you a better picture, these are dishes that usually include meats, lemons, olives, eggs, parsley, tomatoes, mint, zucchini, and pita bread or naan, and you can go with any of these or use your own.
The trick is to get creative and go where your taste buds lead you!
But to those who are less adventurous and would like to travel an already well-trodden path, here are some recipes that might suit you.
Recipes that use Halloumi cheese
We’ll start by saying that there are many, many, many ways to use Halloumi in your cooking.
This is again due to the cheese’s ability to retain its shape and withstand very high temperatures.
It can be cut, cubed, sliced, shredded, rounded, minced, mashed, drawn into strings… you get the picture.
What we have here are a select few of the many hundreds of things you can do with Halloumi.
We’ll begin with the basics.
Here is how to fry, bake and grill Halloumi.
You’ll need to know these things to move on to the more intermediate and advanced recipes.
How can we make anything with Halloumi if we don’t have Halloumi to start with?
Authentic Halloumi can be difficult and expensive to acquire outside of Cyprus.
This is again due to IP rights and the fact that Halloumi can’t be Halloumi if it isn’t made in Cyprus.
So we’re starting with some instruction on how to make our own workable home-made variety.
When Halloumi is hasselbacked, it opens up more surface area to ensure maximum crispiness.Served with green salad and flatbreads, it would make a perfect part of your entrée.
Everyone loves a good stuffed pepper!
Make this classic shine brighter with Halloumi cubes, harissa, and a whack of red chili or jalapeños for that extra oomph!
The ultimate veggie burger with mushroom, avocado, spinach, and Halloumi—ready in just half an hour!
The bottom line
Halloumi is prized for retaining its shape and resisting melt at high temperatures. It is perfect for frying and baking and is one of the few kinds of cheese that can be reliably grilled. And now you know more about what is halloumi cheese:
- It makes an amazing meat substitute.
- It has a salty flavor throughout, hence requiring less seasoning.
- It makes a distinct squeak when bitten into.
- It has a long storage life and can be consumed at your leisure.
3. Charles O’Connor. Traditional Cheesemaking Manual. International Livestock Centre for Africa. back
6. “Why does halloumi, but not other cheese, “squeak” against your teeth?”. New Scientist. Retrieved 15 December 2021. back
12. Séamas O’Reilly Halloumi hell: how will we survive the cheese crisis? Sun 24 Nov 2019. back