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Muhallebi (Mahalabia) Semruhtools

Who doesn’t love a milk based dessert? I certainly do. The milk pudding known as muhallebi or mahalabia is as good as they come. Light, gently flavoured and super easy to make at home, this recipe for muhallebi is one I always come back to.

A brief history of mahalabia and muhallebi

It’s said that muhallebi gained prominence when a Persian cook served it to the Arab general by the name of al Muhallab bin Abi Sufra in the 7th century. The general loved it so much, he ever so humbly named it after himself. (No one knows the name of the cook.)

On the other hand, halib is also the Arabic word for milk, so perhaps we should take that story with a pinch of salt (or sugar).

The earliest recorded recipes date back around a thousand years. Since the beginning, there have been multiple ways of making this delicious milk pudding or custard. The main ingredient is always fresh milk, but the thickener varies.

Mashed rice was likely the most common, and remains a popular choice today. Another version is made with eggs, making the dessert a type of custard.

A third, and perhaps most curious to readers less familiar with Turkish cuisine, is with rice and tiny pieces of chicken meat! This version remains popular in Turkey to this day, now simply called tavuk göğüsü, literally “chicken breast”.

The Ottomans loved their desserts, and considered them as important to any meal as meat and rice. Muhallebi was a firm favourite of sultans, even though fresh milk was difficult to source in Istanbul until the 17th century. According to Marianna Yerasimos’ seminal book on Ottoman cuisine, muhallebi “was never absent from the Sultan’s sofra” (sofra being the Turkish word for dinner table) and was among the most popular dishes at public celebrations.

All that being said, milk puddings are common across the world. Muhallebi is certainly not specifically Turkish, just like mahalabia isn’t specific to the Arab world. For example, the dish is also linked to Sephardi Jewish culture, where it’s associated with the Yom Kippur holiday and weddings.

Turks do have a special place in their hearts for milk pudding based desserts, however. So much so, that there’s an entire shop concept dedicated to the sale of them!

In Turkey, you can find muhallebici shops all across the country. These are cafés devoted primarily to selling various versions of milk pudding. They may also serve a range of other sweets and, in the winter months, are a great place to enjoy salep.

Historically, these shops were unusual also from a gender perspective. Old-school coffee houses were a domain reserved for the men only. However, muhallebi shops were frequented by both women and men. 

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