Mahleb is a dried kernel of the St. Lucie Cherry tree, or Prunus mahaleb, that contains some important acids like the oleic and linoleic acids. These are part of the Omega-3 family of fatty acids, which are necessary for heart and brain health as well as the reduction of inflammation of any part of the body.
This spice finds it popularity in Greek breads and Easter cookies. It is not typically used in the United States except for by Greek-Americans and people who have a special interest in the Mediterranean way of eating.
30% oil can be extracted from the seeds. This oil is primarily comprised of the previously mentioned oleic and linoleic acids.
Mahleb has a name in a menagerie of languages. In Arabic it is ‘halub; in Mandarin it is ‘ma ha li ying tao; in Japanese it is ‘Maharibu; in Portuguese it is ‘abrunheiro-bravo; in Russian it is ‘vishnya makhalebka; while in French, German, Hindi, and Spanish it is called ‘mahaleb. It may also be marketed as St. Lucies Cherry or St. Lucies cherry kernels. Sometimes it is spelled "mahlab."
In Arabic, the name "mahleb" has many different spellings and pronunciations and is thus written in different ways. Some people say almahaleb, adding the article directly to the word, while others simply use the common "halub." Mentions of mahleb in Arabic were first found in the medieval writings of the Al-Razi, a group of Iranian scholars who were born in the town of Rey, Iran.
A name for this spice did not appear in Latin until 1317, when a man by the name of Matthaeus Silvaticus compiled an encyclopedia of information on natural remedies or medicines and mentioned the kernel of the cherries of Arabic countries. It was called "mahalab" in his writings.
Inana was the Sumerian goddess of things like war, sex, political power, and desire. Thought to be one of the most fascinating of all the goddesses, it is more than likely that the tree mentioned in early Sumerian writing that represented Inana was Prunus mahaleb. Unfortunately, there is no definitive proof, minus the fact that they talk of the tree producing more flowers than fruit and having hard wood, just like the St. Lucie Cherry tree. There are other options for the position of Inanas tree, but this tree is the strongest contender of them all.
Mahleb was first used as an addition to perfumes in Turkey and the Middle East. The unique scent is the perfect blend of subtle yet noticeable, making it ideal for fragrances. Presently, the spice provides the scent for some Greek shampoos and conditioners geared towards our four-legged friends- cats and dogs.
Historically, it was recognized for its health benefits. It is rich in coumarins, which are a set of compounds that have a wide range of health boosting properties, as they discourage hypertension and seem to inhibit tumor growth. These compounds are also thought to be the source of the distinct flavor of mahleb.
It is believed to have traveled to the United states with immigrants who were hoping to bring a piece of home over with them, but there is disappointingly little history of the spice known in the US. It has never lost its special place in the diets of the cultures who recognize its value, though it has yet to gain a bustling popularity with most consumers in the United States. Increased appearance in Mediterranean cookbooks, as well as more interest in the Mediterranean diet have both given mahleb a little more well-deserved attention, but it continues to fly under most radars.
Today this spice is most famous as a Greek baking spice in the United States. Though it has potentially limitless food applications whether in savory of sugary dishes, it has been pigeonholed into a single category of food simply because of its perfect relationship with sweets. Next time youre able to pick up some tsoureki, do yourself the favor of grabbing a loaf flavored with mahleb.
Mahleb comes from the kernel inside the cherry stones of the St. Lucie Cherry. The kernel is shaped like a droplet and is beige in color when fresh, but becomes darker in pigmentation as it ages. This cherry is grown on trees which appear in mostly the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Southern Europe. It is also found in Central Europe, though that is far more uncommon. Syria was the number one exporter of this spice before the war, but now it is Iran. Idb Al-Awwan was the author of the book written in the late 12th century about the cultivation of this tree. He details the tree as being quick and easy to grow, but to keep up with watering the plant as it is not especially drought tolerant. It can grow in nutrient poor soil.
The St. Lucies cherry tree as deep, fibrous roots. There is a lot of distance between branches and the bark is a greyish brown to mahogany color, depending on the location. This tree practices selective seed abortion to eliminate weak seeds, leaving a very high flower to fruit ratio. Selective seed abortion gives the remaining seeds a stronger chance of survival and a better supply of resources. The process of selective seed abortion is complex and determined by the plant in conjunction with outside elements. For example, a plant in an arid climate would be more likely to practice this than a tree in a deciduous climate where resources are far more plenty and more seeds are likely to survive. The St. Lucie Cherry trees are resilient against diseases. The flowers of the tree are tiny and white, clustered together on long stalks. They are especially fragrant. The cherries, or fruits of the tree, are very small, often one centimeter or less in diameter, and are too bitter for consumption. The flesh is disregarded in most cases for access to the kernel of the cherry stone. The tree is grown ornamentally in some parts of Europe for the beautiful flowers.
When the fruit has ripened the seed is removed from the fruit, washed, and then dried. The soft internal kernel is removed from the hard casing and then dried, packaged, and finally sold as the whole kernel or ground.
Our Mahleb comes from Greece.
Greeks are known for their use of unique spices and within their palette of flavors is mahleb. Greek Easter bread, or tsoureki, is flavored traditionally with mahleb. There are some excellent recipes online for this bread, and any Greek cook you may know should probably have a variant recipe in their arsenal. This is a spice typically used for special occasions and holidays, as it is harder to come by than most, so do not be surprised to see a limited number of recipes online.
Interestingly there is a type of Egyptian bread called "Mahleb bread" which has zero to do with the spice and does not include it in the list of ingredients. Of course, you could add it yourself if you so wished. Exploration of flavor is a key proponent of this spice.
It is most frequently found in baking, but it also finds its place with cheesy, rich type foods. The flavor is fondly familiar to the mouth with its hints of cherry and almond.
Some cooks have even found a creative use for mahleb as a star flavor in their ice creams. It can also be found in some Middle Eastern cheeses.
Grind and sprinkle some on savory dishes like sautéed vegetables for a truly unique flavor experience. Make pancakes with this spice to bring something new to the breakfast table. Drizzle the pancakes with a blueberry sauce and a squirt of lemon juice to compliment the almond-like flavor.
You dont need to add a lot to give some good flavor to your recipe, but it can certainly transform a boring, drab recipe into something fresh and alluring. Many recipes say that the mahleb is optional, but leaving it out will surely decrease the pleasure of the dining experience. This flavor simply cannot be forgotten.
Desserts such as spiced sweet potato doughnuts rely on this flavor to add a certain boost of oomph to the dish. It is found in desserts because it compliments sweets and dairy so well, and these are often main components of after dinner treats. One of our favorite recipes using Mahleb is Armenian Simit Cookies.
Mahleb combines well with fruits, breads, dairy products, nuts, and honey.
It tastes good with almonds, apricots, rose water, pistachios, dates, walnuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, poppy seeds, and sesame seeds.
Kernels keep for longer than the ground mahleb, and they can be ground on an "as-needed" basis. The kernels can be kept for a year to two years if properly stored in an airtight container. They can be frozen if so desired. When the kernel begins to go bad, it will start to smell strongly of something putrid or rotten.
Ground mahleb loses its flavor quite quickly, so it is wise to use it as rapidly as you can.
Mahleb has a delicate, mild flavor of almonds with notes of both cherry and roses. There is a nice mildly bitter aftertaste that adds an extra dimension to sweet foods. Some have even said the flavor is vaguely of rosewater.
Substitutions include ground fennel seeds, ground cardamom or organic ground cardamom, and ground Chinese almonds. These substitutions lack the nuanced flavors of mahleb, but can be used in a pinch if the recipe requires the spice. Most common recipes in the United States do not require it but for something like Greek bread it is quite necessary.
If you are making a bread, cinnamon or anise may be a good substitute. It will change the overall flavor of the dish, but itll still be tasty.