Found inside wild-cherry pits, these tiny almond-shaped kernels–which give so many Turkish baked goods their distinctive flavor–have a long and colorful history
By Aylin Öney Tan
Visitors to Istanbul are often struck by the smell of bread, freshly baked every morning by the city’s thousands of bakeries. The aroma, however, is distinct from the smell of sourdough bread with which most western visitors are familiar.
Rather, the unique smell is attributable to the presence of mahlep (mahaleb in English), an essential ingredient of the yeasty, braided bread known as Paskalya çöreği (‘Easter bread’).
Yet despite its name, this uniquely Turkish muffin-like bread is enjoyed all year round, by Christians and non-Christians alike, and the ingredient that gives it its special tang has for centuries been a mainstay of Turkish cuisine.
Mahlep has long been used for baking both sweet and savory bread in Turkey, the Balkans, and the Middle East. It lends a certain bitterness to the dough it is used in, not unlike bitter almond–albeit much less pronounced.
Subtle but instantly recognizable to those familiar with it, mahlep also imbues dough with an appealing chewiness, while its inherent bitterness serves to accentuate the taste of whatever dish it is applied to.
Mahlep is commonly thought of as a spice, but it isn’t. Rather, it’s a miniscule, almond-shaped kernel found inside the pits of wild cherries. Measuring about 5 millimeters in length, these kernels are soft in texture and of a brown or ivory color.
Most stone fruits or drupes (i.e., fruits with large pits or ‘stones’ at the center), such as cherries, apricots and peaches, contain such almond-like kernels, in which traces of cyanide are present. This endows them with a degree of bitterness, which in some cases can be too overpowering to enjoy.
Mahlep’s bitterness derives mainly from coumarin, an organic chemical compound that gives it a pleasant taste reminiscent of tonka beans, which are indigenous to Central America.
Also found in cinnamon, Coumarin gives mahlep its distinctive taste. A mere teaspoonful of mahlep is usually enough to transform a standard loaf of bread–or a baking tray full of cookies–into something truly delectable.
Mother of all cherries
The Mahlep tree, Purunus mahaleb, is native to the Anatolian region. The ancestor of all the world’s different cherry varieties, the fruit has numerous legends attached to it.
One of these has to do with Lucullus (118BC-56BC), a Roman politician and general who is given credit for introducing the cherry to the wider world. According to legend, when Lucullus came to the north Anatolian city of Giresun (formerly known as Kerasus) on the Black Sea coast, he discovered the cherry and became enamored with its delicious taste.
The ancient name of the city is said to be derived from the Greek word for horn (keras). Ancient depictions of the city show it surrounded by hills, which appear to resemble a pair of horns, while the city itself sits on a horn-shaped peninsula.
Lucullus purportedly named his beloved cherry after the city in which he discovered it, and the rest–so the saying goes–is history.
A fruit for all tongues – According to legend, the word for ‘cherry’ is derived from Anatolia’s ancient city of Kerasus (known to the Romans as Cerasus). Cognates of the word appear to exist in several languages, including English (cherry); French (Cerise); Italian (ciliegia); German (kirsch); Hungarian (cseresznye); Greek (kerasia); Assyrian (karasya); Arabic (kerz); and–last but not least–Turkish (kiraz).
The story of Lucullus and his discovery of the cherry is one of those culinary legends we would love to believe. But while the cherry is definitely native to Anatolia, it appears to have made its way to Europe long before the Roman general’s time.
Prehistoric lake sites in Switzerland, for example, have been found to contain cherry pits, and there are several allusions to cherries in Roman literary sources that predate Lucullus.
Although the exact history of the cherry remains an unsolved mystery, at least one or two varieties of the fruit certainly made their way to the orchards of Rome. One wild variety, known as St. Lucie (noticeably similar to Lucullus’ name), is our beloved Prunus mahaleb, which could be a descendent of the cherry saplings the Roman general brought back home.
The word mahaleb, meanwhile, can be traced to both Arabic and Hebrew. The word probably comes from the Semitic root halab (meaning milk), prompting speculation of a linkage with the city of Aleppo, which has long been known for its delicious cherries.
Aleppo’s association with the root word halab is popularly attributed to the milky white stone from which the city was built. Aleppo is still famous for its wonderful cherry-based dishes (including kebabs), and a small town close to the city has long had a cherry as its symbol.
Perhaps this intriguing connection between Aleppo and mahaleb will one day spawn its own culinary legend explaining the link between the cherry and the celebrated city. In the meantime, the story is made only more confusing by the fact that, in Anatolia, the mahaleb tree is called the İdris Ağacı, or “Tree of Idris,” named after the Islamic prophet identified with Enoch in the Old Testament of the Bible.
The secret ingredient
Mahlep is used in an area spanning from Greece to the Middle East, a culinary legacy of the Ottoman Empire’s diversity and multiculturalism. It is mainly used in bakeries to make a wide variety of savory wheaten products, including breads, biscuits, and cakes.
Widely available in powdered form like vanillin, it is at hand in most Turkish kitchens. Poğaça, for example, a savory roll usually eaten at breakfast or teatime, is typically flavored with mahlep, whether it is plain or stuffed with a filling, such as cheese.
Kandil simidi, a sesame-studded savory ring, is traditionally sold on the street or in pastry shops, wrapped in colorful onion-skin paper. Kandil is the name given to each of five Islamic holy nights, when minarets are illuminated to mark the occasion. Here again, mahlep is a key ingredient, providing the festive bread with its special taste.
Çörek, a term applied to a range of baked goods, from cookie-like forms to sweet rolls and breads, also frequently features a dose of mahlep.
Many regional Ramadan specialties also make use of mahlep. These typically bear the name of particular cities, such as Diyarbakır çöreği or Mardin çöreği. The latter is made for a number of holidays, including Christmas, Easter and Ramadan–proof of mahlep’s wide-ranging appeal, which transcends national, religious and class divides.
And there are other, less well-known applications for mahlep. For example, some enterprising chefs add it to buttery rice pilaf as a secret ingredient to give the dish added flair.
In spring, when fresh cherries begin to appear in the market, one should plan a trip to the Çiya restaurant in Kadıköy on Istanbul’s Anatolian side. This eatery’s menu occasionally features lahm-i kiraz kebabı, a delectable cherry-and-meat kebab.
Chef Musa Dağdeviren also makes a juicy stew consisting of tiny meatballs, button onions, and cherries (sweet or sour, depending on the season), all piled on wedges of freshly-baked flatbread that soak up the juices. His secret? A pinch of mahlep in the meatballs, which serves to complement the bittersweet taste of the cherries!
Mahlep by Diren
Mahlep is also the name of a drink made in Turkey. Created by Vasıf Diren, founder of Diren, a Tokat-based winery, the drink is a cross between a port-like fortified wine and vermouth.
Flavored with local mahlep, it has a note of bitter almond, along with hints of tonka bean, vanilla, wild berry, and cherry. On the rocks, it makes a great aperitivo.
It can also be served chilled as a sweet wine to accompany certain Turkish desserts, such as baked quinces (Ayva tatlısı) or bread pudding with sour cherries (Vişneli Ekmek Kadayıfı), both of which should be topped with clotted cream (kaymak).
The drink’s mild sweetness goes especially well with strong cheeses, like aged kaşar (similar to Manchego), or with moldy cheeses, such as Divle peyniri, a cave-aged sheep’s milk cheese preserved in goatskin.
It can also serve as a cherry liquor to accompany a particularly good cup of Turkish coffee.