Muhalabia, Blancmange or Phirni … Middle East, France or India, one dessert in its multiple avatars with strange beginnings.
Muhalabia is now everywhere, served in homes and restaurants, as quick weekend treats or lavish wedding desserts, at iftars and festivals, from buffets to instant-make pouches on supermarket shelves. But just like its French counterpart blancmange, the sweet dish has surprising beginnings – it used to be a savoury dish made with meat in the Middle Ages.
The muhalabia’s journey to a meatless sweet milk pudding is an interesting one. Earlier versions of its recipe show milk with ground rice, milk with whole rice and chicken, and an egg custard. Later versions showcase a spiced version with mutton.
The legendary origins of muhalabia and an introduction into Arab cuisine begin in the late seventh century. A cook in Iran, who is said to have been neighbours with an Arab general, volunteered to prepare the dish for him, and is said to have made a version with lamb. After a taste, the general, Al Muhallab ibn Abi Sufra, is said to have enjoyed the dish so much, that the cook named it after him.
Unlike so many other heritage dishes, muhalabia didn’t make its way into extinction, and there are many reasons for its enduring fame over hundreds of years.
First is an economical ingredient list: Milk, sugar, corn flour and rose water.
The second is the mix of flavours it lends itself to: the dish is at its essence light and refreshing, but can be equally rich and creamy.
Third: its versatility.
A taste of nostalgia… over a 1000 years old
Muhalabia's a dish with huge variation and potential - from northern Africa to Europe to the Middle East, everyone has their own version of it.
And just like the dish’s varied past, it also has a varied present. Its use with meat might have died down in most places, but it’s still prevalent in one country: Turkey. And a sweet, milk-free version exists in Cyprus. Or a version with rice, the phirni, in India. Even other parts of the region, such as Egypt, Jordan, make the muhalabia with rice.
German academic Peter Heine, who has studied the Middle Eastern culinary culture for more than 50 years and authored a book on it called The Culinary Crescent: A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine, told gulfnews.com that the muhalabia was rather resilient post its initial appearance in the seventh century, finding its way into cookbooks centuries later.
“A recipe was found in an anonymous Andalusian cookbook of the 13th century,” he told the Food team. “Another recipe is given by Abu Razin Al-Tudjibi, born in Valencia [Spain] in the 13th century, who wrote about the food of Al-Andalus after he was forced to leave his home because of the Christian conquerors in Al Andalus.”
Eggs, noodles and chicken
But Heine said the oldest recipes of muhalabia are in a 10th-century cookbook by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. Shown are different ways to prepare it. “There are muhalabiyyat with eggs, with itriyya (dry noodles) with rice - and the most interesting is a muhalabia with rice and chicken.”
A translated recipe of the muhalabia from the book by Nawal Nasrallah in Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchen reads: “Clean and disjoint an excellent chicken, put it in a pot that already has 1 ratl (2 cups) water boiling in it. Let the pot boil until the moisture evaporates and the chicken fries in its oil. Season it with a little coriander, cumin, cassia, and saffron and set it aside.
“Pour in a pot 7 ratls (1 pound) milk of sheep or goat and boil it. Prepare 1 ratl (1 pound) washed good-quality rice and add it to the boiling milk along with the chicken. Light a medium fire underneath the pot and let it cook.
“When the rice is almost done, pour into the pot 2 ½ ratls (21/2 pounds) honey and stir it gently so that you do not break the rice grains because the beauty of the dish is when the rice grains show through the honey. Stop the fire underneath it and perfume it with rose water and saffron….”
From the Sassanids to Topkapi Palace
Mansour Memarian, Executive Chef at Palazzo Versace Dubai and the first Iranian chef to head a Michelin-starred restaurant, said the dish was not called muhalabia when it started to be written in history books; it began as blancmange. “Blancmange used to be a technique of coating capon breast in sugar and milk, mainly eaten at Christmas or celebrations,” he said.
“Muhalabia comes from the Sassanids [the Empire of Iranians in the mid seventh century AD]," he said. “It used to be enjoyed with young chicken breast, which was cooked and cut into smaller pieces, then mixed into a type of custard solution. It was a dish that gave you strength. Corn or rice flour was used to thicken the liquid. Later in the seventh century, it was named after the Arab general.”
Muhalabia comes from the Sassanids [the Empire of Iranians in the mid seventh century AD]. It used to be enjoyed with young chicken breast, which was cooked and cut into smaller pieces, then mixed into a type of custard solution. It was a dish that gave you strength. Corn or rice flour was used to thicken the liquid.
Meat's slow disappearance from the dish is attributed to the wider availability of rice, which was once an expensive ingredient and consumed only on special occasions, due to which desserts were often mixed with cheaper meat products. Spices were hugely expensive too.
Memarian mentions the push towards lighter options in recent times as a reason. “Earlier meat was needed for more strength for the day, so from chicken to broth, all dishes were heavier than now. Food, from Middle Eastern to Indian, has overall become lighter now.
“Another variation once served to Ottoman sultans in Turkey’s Topkapi palace, and still a Turkish signature dish, is the tavuk gogsu. It is a sweet custard with milk, sometimes cream, and shredded chicken breast, shaped the way you like. It’s made in a way that you don’t see the chicken, but it’s a whole meal with character because of the meat.”
The perfumes of Arabia…
In its modern form as a dessert, Chef Memarian attributes muhalabia’s delicate, refreshing taste and the addition of perfumed water to its rise in popularity and its staying power. ‘It’s made with rose water usually, but it fluctuates across countries – for instance my wife who is Moroccan uses orange blossom water.
“The muhalabia is now referred to as a dish you eat to kill a small hunger. In Turkey it’s still a main course. In Iranian cuisine if a woman gives birth she’s given muhalabia a few days after, just like in Indian culture she’s given phirni, so she can get her strength back.
“In a lot of cultures it’s still used to end your fast, and I don’t mean only during iftar, but also among Jews and Christians – it’s light and good on your stomach but still fills you up. Every Middle Eastern family, every mum and grandmum has their own version.”
Chef Memarian said while the muhalabia is traditionally served cold, his mother used to whip up a fast dessert to be enjoyed warm. “Present generations mostly eat it cold, and at buffets it’s served with pistachio, cardamom or saffron.” He likes to keep it as simple as possible, but adds pieces of frozen vanilla cream in for additional freshness and creaminess.
Find the recipe for muhalabia by Chef Memarian here.
Whole rice to no rice
Amina Al Saigh, a Canadian mum who runs a Middle Eastern food blog, hungrypaprikas.com, doesn’t remember it as a simple dish. Muhalabia was made by her grandmothers in the 1960s in her hometown of Mosul, Iraq, using crushed grains of rice, she told Food by Gulf News. The process began by firstly picking through the rice and cleaning it of stones and dirt, then washing it thoroughly.
“The rice is then soaked for a few hours to soften it,” she said. “As it is drained, it is also crushed between the hands to break up the grains of rice into smaller pieces. Then it would be spread out on towels and allowed to dry in the sun. Once it was completely dry, it would be ground in a mortar and pestle to further break the rice into fine pieces – not to a flour consistency but a fine one.’
Amina said the muhalabia would then be made by heating milk and sugar in a pot. The crushed rice would be mixed in a separate bowl with cold milk and whisked to a smooth consistency, then slowly added to the hot milk before it reached a boil. The mixture would then be whisked continuously until thickened, and a bit of ground cardamom would be added. Sometimes a bit of rose water too, Amina said.
“It is then poured into serving bowls and allowed to cool to room temperature, when a fine film would also form on top. It would be usually made in the morning to allow it to cool down by lunchtime, since they didn't place it in the refrigerator (refrigerators looked very different back then and had limited space). It's garnished with ground cinnamon in the shape of a plus sign and served.”
The joy of sweet and savoury from Mosul, Iraq
Amina said in Mosul, muhalabia would be served to guests mostly during the month of Ramadan, but also on special occasions or general gatherings. “My mum also told me that it would almost always be served alongside a certain savoury dish called Kubbat Roz, which is a patty made of rice dough, stuffed with ground beef and spices, and then fried. Traditionally, this savoury dish would be eaten with the muhalabia as a sweet and salty combination.”
Years later, Amina has varied this up in her modern kitchen to suit busy mums. "I make it either using store-bought rice flour or cornstarch. The cornstarch is easier as it's always in my cupboard, and it yields a smooth consistency. The rice flour is closer in texture to the original way of making muhalabia and most likely the common way it is made in restaurants.”
My mum also told me that muhalabia would almost always be served alongside a certain savoury dish called Kubbat Roz [in Iraq], which is a patty made of rice dough, stuffed with ground beef and spices, and then fried. Traditionally, this savoury dish would be eaten with the muhalabia as a sweet and salty combination.
Amina has never attempted making it from whole rice. “Maybe I should! But as a busy mum, the easier option is definitely more convenient for me. I also have tried varying the flavouring more, alternating between cardamom, rose water, or orange blossom water. If I'm serving it for guests and want it to be slightly more luxurious and decadent, I often add a little bit of cream in place of some milk.
“As for the garnish, since it's quite smooth, I love adding more texturing by topping it with nuts such as pistachios or almonds, and occasionally throwing in shredded coconut. My next experiment will definitely be a chocolate muhalabia!”
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