The first time I tasted halloumi, it was accidental. At a potluck party, one of my hippy friends doled out generous slices of a quinoa veggie dish, layered with thick slabs of the squeaky cheese. Instant foodgasm. My brain couldn’t process what was happening in my mouth: that strange rubbery-but-chewy texture, the confusing explosion of a salty savoriness and what the hell was that squeaking? There were hints of mozzarella, maybe a resemblance to feta, but this was definitely something new and different. She told me it was halloumi, but that didn’t mean much to me at the time, as I only vaguely knew it was related to Cyprus.
Fast-forward 10 years and halloumi — a cheese traditionally made from goat’s or sheep’s milk — has a huge fan base in the U.K., Sweden and Australia and is the top export for Cyprus. It’s even made inroads into the fast-food space. At McDonald’s in Saudi Arabia, you can order halloumi breakfast muffins, and it is included in the build-your-own burger options in Australian Mickey D’s. America granted halloumi protected status as a Cyprus export in the 1990s, and Cypriots are waiting to hear if the EU will give it the same protection as Champagne and Camembert.
Grill them like you would a piece of chicken, a few minutes on each side, and voilà: golden slabs of firm, unmelted goodness.
But the rubbery cheese has yet to make real headway on American menus. That can be partly attributed to the confusion about how to use it. If you’re a halloumi newbie, you won’t realize it transforms into a dense slab when grilled — its higher-than-normal melting point means it doesn’t melt in the pan. But on a shelf it just looks watery and rubbery. And potentially unappetizing.
Vas Pittas, an American immigrant who comes from a long line of Cypriot cheesemakers, recently decided to bring halloumi out of the restaurants and into school lunch boxes, but he realized it needed a rebrand both in design and application. Using cheerful yellow packaging, Pittas created Grillies: burger-style slices and breaded halloumi sticks (out later this year), as well as traditional blocks.
Pittas says he gave the cheese “an American identity and reinvented the recipe.” The slices taste similar to traditional halloumi, “but more neutral,” he adds, and include four ingredients: sheep’s milk, salt, vegetarian rennet and mint. Grill them like you would a piece of chicken, a few minutes on each side, and voilà: golden slabs of firm, unmelted goodness.
Grillies soft-launched in 2016 in New Jersey and recently signed a distribution deal with Amazon Fresh to expand across America. They’re priced competitively compared to other halloumi products, but at $6.50 for their burger slices, they’re significantly higher than the humble cheddar, which may limit their appeal.
Good for foodies, and good for Cyprus too. Last year, halloumi brought in around 103 million euros in revenue as Cyprus’ top export and is predicted to increase 15 to 20 percent annually, a boon for a country in bailout recovery. As a halloumi fangirl, I’m just happy that this delicious cheese is more accessible. The fact that every squeaky bite does some good is an added bonus.
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