The Rich Lebanese Condiment That Will Instantly Upgrade A Plain Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Grilled cheese, just like instant noodles or fried rice, falls into that category of nostalgic-yet-still-tasty food. The simple bread-cheese-butter (or mayo) combo is easy to make and cost-effective. But one reason many of us continue to eat it at different stages of our life is that it serves as a foundation to experiment with different flavors. You can add pickles or relish for acidity, deli meat for salt, and jalapeños for a spicy kick. Better still, try kimchi grilled cheese and get all three bonus tastes.

If you are keen to upgrade your grilled cheese sandwich, consider adding toum (which means garlic in Arabic). Toum originated in Lebanon but is found throughout the Levant today. It is a condiment made with garlic, oil, lemon juice, salt, and a bit of water and is often referred to as a "garlic sauce". This is a misnomer since its texture is closer to a whipped or spreadable paste like mayonnaise or labneh.

Toum traditionally enhances chicken shawarma

If you've ever received a small container of delicious but no-name dip with your takeaway chicken shawarma, chances are it was toum. The reason why toum works so well in a grilled meat (or grilled cheese) sandwich is the same reason why aioli complements fries or pesto complements pasta. It provides a burst of instant and concentrated flavor. In the case of toum, it is a balance of pungent garlic and tangy lemon juice. Although you can buy toum in many supermarkets and Middle Eastern grocers, it can be simple to make it at home.

The process to make toum is essentially an emulsification, similar to making mayonnaise but stabilized with garlic instead of eggs. Take a cup of garlic cloves, and blend it with salt in the food processor until it becomes a sticky paste. Then add in the oil in a slow trickle until it becomes smooth, before alternating with lemon juice and oil until you get the right balance of flavor and the texture looks creamy and fluffy. While it can be tempting to use olive oil for toum, it will overpower the condiment. It is better to use a neutral-tasting oil like sunflower seed or canola oil instead. 

It can also be used as a butter substitute

Don't be alarmed by the large quantities of raw garlic required for making toum – resting it overnight will help tone down the garlic's intensity. Toum can also last three to four months in the fridge, after which the garlicky taste will start to fade.

In a New York Times recipe from chef Ham El-Waylly, the idea is to use toum as a stand-in for butter when making a grilled cheese sandwich. After assembling the bread, cheese, and pickles, El-Waylly spreads toum on one side of the sandwich bread before placing it slathered-side down on the hot skillet until it becomes golden brown, then flips and repeats the process for the other side. This method will make your grilled cheese sandwich taste like a combination of garlic bread and cheesy toast. Just remember that toum is primarily garlic, so it can burn easily, which will leave a bitter aftertaste.

If you have any leftover toum, pair it with grilled meats or, as Bon Appétit's Andy Baraghani suggests, mash it into charred eggplant to make a dip or drizzle over sweet potato.