Khelwa or Leben (Yogurt)

Yogurt is a staple in Chaldean households. It’s eaten for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner, as a post-meal snack…at any time really. The versatility of khelwa lies in the fact that it is unsweetened, which means you can eat it with just about anything. Top it with granola and fruit. Eat it alongside tumreh (dates) stuffed with walnuts. Sprinkle a generous amount of za’tar and drizzle with olive oil for a less sweet snack. Have an abundance of cucumbers? Chop them finely, add them to the yogurt with some garlic and mint, and you’ll have a refreshing summer salad. With khelwa, the options are endless.

When I asked my mom how they ate khelwa in Iraq, she remembers eating it mainly for breakfast. They would cut fresh lookhma, or bread, into small pieces and and dip it in the yogurt. For younger kids, they would sometimes sprinkle sugar on the yogurt, making a sweet treat. A classic accompaniment for khelwa is stuffed dates. At all Chaldean gatherings, without fail, there is a heaping plate of medjool dates, stuffed to the rim with walnuts. The sweet stickiness of the dates paired with the crunch of the walnuts is a delectable treat on its own. But when you dip the treat into khlewa, the sweetness of the dates is balanced by the creaminess of the plain yogurt.

Growing up, I didn’t appreciate khelwa. I loved eating the colored fruit flavored yogurt that came in enticing cups from the grocery stores. My mom was always trying to get my brother and I to eat khelwa. I finally started eating it one day, when my mom topped the yogurt with sliced strawberries and generous drizzles of honey. From that day on, I was hooked. Khelwa became my favorite breakfast food. In high school, I would often eat a gigantic bowl of yogurt for lunch. With strawberries and honey, with a side of grapes, with granola. I still eat khelwa for breakfast most days of the week.

While it might sound daunting to make your own yogurt at home, it’s a simple process that involves a touch of patience.


  • 1 gallon milk
  • 8 oz plain yogurt


  • Pour the gallon of milk into a large pot. Turn the heat to medium. Let the milk heat on the stove until it begins to rise and form small bubbles.
  • Take the pot off the heat, and allow the milk to cool to about 125 degrees F. (If the milk is too cold or too hot, the yogurt will not form. The temperature of the milk needs be just right, so that the live and active cultures in the yogurt multiply)
  • Add some of the warmed milk to the 8oz of yogurt. Mix the yogurt until it’s smooth.
  • Once the milk has cooled to 125 F, drizzle the 8oz of milk into the pot. Cover the pot with a lid, and wrap with a heavy blanket. Let the milk sit overnight, or for about 8 hours. When you uncover the pot, the milk will have turned into a creamy yogurt. There will be a thin layer of water on the top. Drain the liquid, and cover the yogurt with paper towel or a small kitchen towel.

Homemade Yogurt

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One Comment

  1. February 26, 2015

    Lovely stories and memories. I love this thick yoghurt, especially when topped with zaatar. Brings back lots of (more recent) memories to me.

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