Feting feta

Decoding the fine taste of feta cheese
Last Updated 27 August 2018, 19:30 IST

Ask a Greek about feta, the tangy, salty cheese aged in brine, and he will probably take you back to 8th century. He will pick a story from the great poet Homer’s Odyssey and mention Cyclope Polyphemus, the first man to prepare cheese. Specifically, feta cheese. According to the story, Polyphemus was carrying sheep’s milk in animal skin and one day noticed that the milk had curdled and taken a solid form. That ‘accidental’ cheese is considered the ancestor of feta.

It was in the 17th century that the name ‘feta’ (literally, slice) gained popularity. It probably referred to the practice of slicing up cheese to be placed into barrels or to the method of cutting the cheese in thin slices to serve on a plate.

In process

Made from sheep and/or goat’s milk, feta cheese is packed with nutrients: low in fat and calories; less allergenic and anti-inflammatory; rich in vitamin B6, vitamin A, and phosphorous; and good for bone health. One ounce (28 gm) of cheddar or parmesan contains more than 110 calories and 7 grams of fat, while 1 ounce of feta has only 74 calories and 6 grams of fat. Additionally, it contains more calcium and B vitamins than other cheeses like mozzarella, ricotta, cottage cheese or goat cheese. Feta contains lactobacillus plantarum, which accounts for about 48% of its bacteria that can help promote the immune system and gut health.

Says Chef Priya Dikshit, D’lecta Foods, “Traditionally, feta is paired with spinach, olives, tomatoes, or cucumbers. Broken up, feta goes in just about any salad. Also, it works well with sandwiches, pizzas, dips or by itself. Try pairing it with watermelon. The freshness of the watermelon goes perfectly with the saltiness of the feta cheese. Feta can also be paired with red bell peppers, pita bread, ricotta, chickpeas, dill, garlic, grapes, and lemon.”

Spinach feta tart

So far, there has not been much experimentation with feta in the Indian kitchen. Chef Dikshit recommends quick feta use by crumbling the cheese over soups, tossed with roasted vegetables, topped on flatbreads, served with fruits, and as a base for dips. Other options include adding crumbled feta over mashed or baked potatoes. Do not cook with feta. Add the feta after the potatoes are cooked. For those who are lactose intolerant to cow’s milk, substitute paneer with feta slices in the sandwich.

Many flavours

Shagun Mehra, chef & hospitality director Coco Shambhala, Sindhudurg, finds feta an interesting ingredient, especially in desserts. “Using feta in desserts seems strange perhaps but I can visualise it clearly. Think of jaggery-grilled pineapple & honey feta cream (cardamom crumble & micro tulsi leaves). The dessert would be balanced because of the sweet yet tart pineapples, the saltiness in the feta is offset by local honey and the cardamom crumble adds the texture and depth. The micro tulsi leaves render a fresh and spicy element to this unconventional yet delicious dessert,” says Chef Mehra.

Feta can also be used to make stuffed mushrooms, zucchini or peppers along with some olive oil, herbs, and breadcrumbs. For a snack, sprinkle feta on nachos and quickly heat until the cheese softens. Do not cook for long — just enough for the cheese to melt. One can also drizzle feta with honey and cracked black peppercorns and serve with crackers. Or dress feta with fresh herbs and lemon juice and bake at 375°F until golden on top; spread on crusty bread and serve.

Beans/legumes and feta make for a good combo. If you are making dry, spicy beans, conclude with a dash of feta and coriander. Add feta with mash potatoes or beans or leftover vegetables to make a quick wrap.

“The tangy, salty taste of feta fits perfectly well with our taste buds. Also, thanks to the saltiness of its packing brine, a little feta can replaces the need for salt in many recipes,” adds chef Dikshit.

Next time, you crumble feta cheese on your salad, remember Polyphemus, the first man to prepare the cheese.

(Published 27 August 2018, 19:30 IST)

Follow us on