Mahaleb cherry is an ingredient that I hadn't used as a spice form in home cooking, but I've now employed in the professional kitchen.
Mahaleb cherry tree
Mahaleb cherries on the tree
Mahaleb cherry kernels
Mahaleb cherry grows abundantly in Western Asia, is found in Northern Africa and Southern Europe and sometimes in Eastern and Central Europe, where it prefers warm and dry climate. Its culinary use is largely restricted to the South-Eastern part of Europe (Greece and Armenia) and Western Asia (Turkey, Lebanon and Syria), with Syria as the principal country of export. Mahaleb cherry trees, being rather robust and insensitive to diseases, are commonly used as stock in grafting cherries, especially in the US.
The soft interior of the fruit stone (kernel or embryo), which is beige to light ochre in colour and drop-shaped.
Rosaceae (rose family).
There are many alternative Latin spellings of the Arabic name for this spice including mahlab, mahalab, mahleb and mahaleb. In Turkish the final consonant is devoiced, yielding mahlep or mahalep. The Greek name for the spice is variously transcribed into Latin as mahlepi, machlepi or makhlepi.
The identical name in Arabic and Hebrew, mahaleb, suggests a common origin and both words probably derive from the common Semitic root hlb "milk" (cf. the Hebrew noun halav "milk" and the Arabic verb halaba "to milk"). The semantic connection between cherry and milk is not understood. Some names for fenugreek also derive from the Semitic root hlb (Hebrew hilbeh and Arabic hulbah, which was loaned into Spanish as alholva).
Another related plant name, galbanum, refers to ferula galbaniflua (a plant closely related to asafoetida) and its latex. In this instance the name is motivated by the milky plant juice, which when dried becomes an aromatic resin used in ancient incenses.
Species name prunus is Latin for "plum tree", from the Greek proumnē.
The English name "cherry" (Old English cyrstrēow "cherry tree") has many relatives in European languages. German kirsche, Italian ciliegio, Hungarian cseresznye, Estonian kirss, Greek kerasi and Armenian geras can all be traced back to Greek kerasos "cherry tree" and kerasion "cherry", which entered some of these languages via the Latin cerasus "cherry tree". The word is thought to be of Semitic origin (Assyrian karşu), but the Assyrian name might be another loan from an unknown ancient tongue of the Middle East.
The Swedish vejksel and the German term weichsel "sour cherry" or "morello" are related to the Russian vishnya "cherry" and originate from the Latin viscum and Greek ixos "mistletoe" or "sticky glue", because a cherry tree resin was used to prepare lime-twigs. Behind this is the Indo-European root wiks- "sticky plant", itself possibly derived from weis- "melt" or "dissolve".
The fruits of the mahaleb cherry are thin-fleshed and small but yield an unusual spice whose delicate fragrance is dominated by a strong bitterness. It is the combination of the fragrance and the bitterness which makes the spice uniquely suited for sweet foods, as long as it is used in measured quantities.
Mahaleb cherry spice is known only in the Eastern Mediterranean and Armenia where it is used almost exclusively for sweetbreads and confectionery. The kernels are loved In Greece for specialties including tsoureki, a brioche-type braided sweet bread that is traditionally baked and eaten at Easter. Besides mahaleb kernels, this is flavoured with mastic, the resin from pistacia lentiscus var. chia which is used only in Greek cuisine. In more recent years, vanilla-scented tsoureki has also become quite popular. Mahaleb is also used in Greece for vasilopita "yeast cakes" and "yeast biscuits" and for a special type of Easter cheese cake in Cyprus, flaounes.
In Western Asia, mahaleb kernels are best known in the cooking styles of Lebanon and Armenia, e.g. Armenian chorak which is a sweet bread very similar to Greek tsoureki. A variant of chorak is prepared in dry cracker form and is enjoyed throughout the year, particularly with a cup of strong coffee.
In all these recipes, the mahaleb cherry kernels are used finely ground. The spice should always be bought as whole kernels, however, because the powder degenerates quickly due to a high lipid content. Even whole kernels become rancid after a year or two.
Mahaleb cherry stones are difficult to obtain in the West, being available only in Eastern Mediterranean specialty shops and sometimes from Greek, Turkish or Arabic vendors. A mixture of tonka beans and a small quantity of bitter almond may be used as a tolerable substitute, but are not as good as the real thing.