μαχλέπι mahlab
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17 Interesting Facts About Mahlab

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Introduction

Mahlab, also known as mahlepi, mahlep, or St. Lucie cherry, is an aromatic spice made from the pit of the St. Lucie cherry (Prunus mahaleb). This small cherry tree is native to Asia Minor and also grows in Europe.

Mahlab has been used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine for centuries to add a sweet, nutty, almond-like flavor to baked goods. However, mahlab remains relatively unknown in many parts of the world.

Below are 17 fascinating facts about this unique spice that is packed with history and flavor. Read on to learn more about mahlab!

Interesting Facts About Mahlab

  1. Mahlab comes from the seed of a cherry tree. Specifically, it comes from the pit of the St. Lucie cherry (Prunus mahaleb), which is more similar to a wild cherry than a sweet cherry. Mahlab only refers to the seed, not the fruit.
  2. Mahlab grows naturally in Asia Minor and Europe. The St. Lucie cherry tree grows across Asia Minor, Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and parts of Western Europe. These regions produce most of the mahlab spice harvested today.
  3. It has several spelling variations. In addition to mahlab, this spice can be spelled mahlepi, mahleb, mahlep, mahalab, and more. The variety of spellings comes from the numerous regional names for both the fruit and spice.
  4. Mahlab gets its unique flavor from amygdalin. This compound is found naturally in apricot, almond, cherry, nectarine, and plum pits. When crushed, amygdalin breaks down into benzaldehyde, which provides mahlab’s sweet and nutty almond-like aroma and taste.
  5. The ancient Romans used mahlab for flavoring. Historical records show that ancient Romans used ground mahlab seeds to give a unique flavor to breads, pastries, and other baked goods. So this spice has been cultivated for over 2000 years!
  6. It remains very popular in the Mediterranean and Middle East today. From Greece and Turkey to Lebanon and Egypt, mahlab is still widely used to flavor pastries, cookies, breads, and more in these regions. Traditional recipes like mamoul cookies, Easter breads, and maamoul rely on mahlab for authentic flavor.
  7. Mahlab pairs well with rosewater. Its sweet, floral aroma and taste complement those from rosewater beautifully. Greek cookies, Turkish delight, and Middle Eastern pastries often contain both mahlab and rosewater.
  8. You can prepare mahlab at home. To make homemade mahlab spice, crack open a cherry pit and remove the mahlab seed inside. Rinse it, let it dry, and then grind it with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Make sure no pit fragments mix with the ground seed.
  9. The seed contains beneficial nutrients. Mahlab is rich in protein, unsaturated fatty acids like oleic acid, dietary fiber, vitamin E, calcium, iron, and zinc. These nutrients give it antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties too.
  10. Mahlab adds visual appeal. In baked goods, subtle notes of mahlab enhance flavor while ground seeds provide speckled appearance. So mahlab boosts aesthetics as well!
  11. You only need a little to impart big flavor. A small amount of mahlab goes a long way. Use too much, and it can overpower a recipe. Start with 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 teaspoon mahlab for every 2 cups of flour.
  12. It works well in both sweet and savory dishes. While most popularly used in pastries, mahlab wonderfully seasons rice dishes, breads, savory pastries, and vegetable dishes too.
  13. Some people should not consume mahlab. Mahlab contains amygdalin which can release small amounts of cyanide during digestion. Thus, those with digestive conditions or sensitivities should avoid mahlab.
  14. Look for mahlab in specialty stores. You can often find mahlab spice in Middle Eastern, Greek, Turkish, or Mediterranean markets. It also appears in some mainstream supermarkets, usually in the spice aisle.
  15. Mahlab makes a great gift. For anyone who loves unique spices or baking traditional recipes, mahlab makes a thoughtful and memorable food-themed gift. Pair it with a related recipe for a complete present.
  16. There are substitutes if you can’t find mahlab. In a pinch, you can replace mahlab with a small amount of almond extract, orange blossom water, or rose water. Mix in some cardamom or cinnamon too. But the flavor won’t be exact.
  17. You can use mahlab in place of almond. Mahlab makes a great replacement for almond extract or flavoring. Simply use the same amount specified in the recipe. It works well in marzipan, amaretto, almond cakes, cookies, and pastries.

Conclusion

While not yet a common household spice, mahlab has a long and rich history. This aromatic seed imparts a sweet nuttiness with cherry and almond undertones to both sweet and savory dishes.

Next time you come across mahlab in a specialty store, give this unique spice a try. Whether used in a traditional recipe or added to cookies, pastries, rice, or bread, it brings a depth of flavor like no other.

So embrace mahlab to add intrigue and authenticity whenever a subtle fruity, floral, nutty flavor is desired. Once discovered, this versatile spice is sure to become a new staple in your kitchen!


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