What is Mahlab?
There are many alternative spellings for this spice; mahlab, mahalab, mahleb, mahlebi or mahaleb. All of these names refer to an unusual fragrant spice made from the stones of a small, black cherry tree that grows wild in the Mediterranean region across to Turkey. It was first used for perfumes in the Middle East and Turkey, where it later became popular as a spice for flavouring breads. The world’s major producer of mahlab is now Iran, followed by Turkey and Syria..
Mahlab is the dried kernel of a small cherry stone. It is oval, about 5mm (3/16″) long, buff-coloured with a finely wrinkled skin and a cream-coloured interior. The powdered spice is yellowish, similar to the colour to mace. Mahlab is not readily available outside the Middle East, though you may find it in Greek or Middle Eastern markets.
Bouquet: quite sweet with notes of cherry and almond. Some describe it as resembling marzipan.
Flavour: a combination of fragrant rosewater-like sweetness and a nutty and faintly bitter, but not unpleasant aftertaste..
Hotness Scale: 1
Preparation and Storage
Mahlab is available whole or ground but, as it quickly deteriorates once ground, it is preferable to pulverise the kernels when needed. Use a pestle and mortar; a coffee grinder is ideal. Generally only small quantities of ground mahlebi are specified in recipes. Store in airtight containers.
Cooking with Mahlab
Mahlab is used widely in Mediterranean countries and the Middle East, especially Turkey, in breads, biscuits and less sweet cakes and pastries. It is well worth experimenting with this unfamiliar but intriguing flavouring. One or two spoonfuls added to a rich pastry for fresh fruit flans gives them a subtle note. Simple milk puddings can be transformed with a few pinches of mahlab and Turkish rice is given its floral fragrance and interesting taste from the spice. A traditional Greek Easter bread is flavoured with mahlab and decorated with coloured eggs. Because of its fragrant character and potential for bitterness, use it sparingly, 1/2 to 1 tsp (2 – 5 ml) to 2 cups (500 ml) of flour in a recipe.
Plant Description and Cultivation
A deciduous tree, 1-12m (3-40ft), with many spreading branches. The bark is smooth and mahogany red. The leaves, up to 6cm (2’/2ifl) long, are bright green, shiny, oval and finely toothed. The flowers are white, single, on long stalks in clusters. The fruit is small, 5-10mm (1/4-3/8in), slightly oval, green at first then black. This early flowering tree grows wild in southern Europe, Mediterranean areas, Turkey and the Levant. It is grown as an ornamental tree in other parts of Europe, including Britain. It can be propagated by seed and is used as a root stock for the sweet cherries.
Mahalabi, Mahaleb(i), Mahlab, Mahiepi, Marlev, St Lucie’s Cherry
Arabic: mahlab, mahleb