When chef and cookbook author Reem Assil was introduced to the Filipino dessert maja blanca, she thought of mahalabiya, an Arab milk pudding once made with rice. Like mahalabiya, maja blanca is a set custard of milk (in this case, coconut) that was once made with a whole grain: corn. Today, both desserts are generally thickened with cornstarch and, in most cases, devoid of the cereals once so essential to their taste and texture. The James Beard-nominated chef of Reem's, in Oakland, was curious to know whether the two desserts were related and quickly found herself going down a rabbit hole.
"I feel like every culture has some version of the mahalabiya. That was the tip-off point for me," Assil tells me over the phone. "It's usually some form of milk and a thickener. It's genius. It's the perfect way to make dessert with very little." Assil believes that many creamy desserts-including maja blanca, panna cotta, and blancmange (sometimes known as blancmanger) may have origins in mahalabiya. Though the delicacy "has roots in seventh-century Persia and was introduced to Arabs in 10th-century Baghdad," Assil notes in her new cookbook, Arabiyya, "it must have influenced custards beyond the region."
Although mahalabiya usually takes the form of dessert today, the pudding once had savory leanings. Early recipes reveal that mahalabiya was made with chicken breasts, rice, milk, and almonds, with sugar or honey used as a seasoning. The Iraqi writer Nawal Nasrallah describes the original recipe-which appeared in a 13th-century Andalusian cookbook-as "a dish of diced meat layered with diced sheep's tail fat and crumbled thin bread. The layered ingredients are drenched in a custard-like mix of eggs, sugar, and milk then baked." The story goes that a young Persian cook was challenged to create a dish for Al-Muhallab ibn Abi Sufra, an army general during the seventh-century Umayyad Caliphate. The general reportedly enjoyed the pudding so much it came to be named after him.By 1530, we begin to see mahalabiya served as a dessert. Like the savory version before it, the dish combined milk, rice, and almonds, but it no longer included any meat. The Turkish culinary historian Mary Işin writes that rose water was "poured over the finished pudding, along with a little butter and powdered sugar."
Though historians can't say for certain that mahalabiya inspired blancmange, the latter-a jiggly white pudding sometimes scented with almonds-began to appear in European lexicon in the 14th and 15th centuries. Alan Davidson, the late British writer and author of The Oxford Companion to Food, noted just how difficult it was to trace "the history of so widespread and popular a dish." In Spain, there is manjar blanco; in the Philippines, there is maja blanca; and in Italy, there is panna cotta, not to mention many more milk puddings around the world. Davidson's best educated guess was that blancmange "derives from the Middle East, whence both rice and almonds were imported."
Just like mahalabiya, the earliest iterations of blancmange also contained shredded chicken or capon. And just as mahalabiya eventually became a dessert without meat, poultry disappeared from blancmange during the Elizabethan era, as the dish became sweeter. Though sugar, which was once used as an elaborate display of elite wealth, was still something of a status symbol, the ingredient became more widely available over the course of the 16th century. With the addition of more whole milk and cream, blancmange also became more luscious during this era. According to the historian Kate Colquohoun, "white purity and cool voluptuousness echoed the virginity of the bejeweled Queen."
Mahalabiya no longer contains poultry, though some cooks still incorporate rice and almonds into the dessert. The milk pudding is widely enjoyed throughout the Arab world today; during Ramadan and Eid, it is often eaten with preserved apricots. Assil serves the pudding year-round at her restaurant. "We just switch it up with any kind of seasonal fruit," she says. In winter, when fruit isn't as bountiful, Assil loves to top her mahalabiya with something bright, like an orange curd.
Curious to try the dessert that may have inspired so many other puddings around the world, I was determined to taste Assil's mahalabiya for myself. Standing over the stove, I whisked a mixture of cream and cornstarch into a saucepan of simmering milk, sugar, and cardamom pods until the mixture thickened. After seasoning the pudding with heady rose water, I poured the dessert into small glasses to set in the fridge overnight. The next morning I topped the pudding with a strawberry compote lightly spiced with cardamom and rose water and dug my spoon into the creamy custard. The pudding jiggled slightly when tapped, but still managed to be rich and luscious enough to melt in my mouth. It was my first mahalabiya, but every spoonful felt familiar.