The malban that was not

Jasmine Soukieh is a Canberra-born and raised Lebanese-Australian, currently spending her days between New Zealand, Lebanon and Australia while she pursues a doctorate in nutritional sciences.  She is one of the Founding Co-editors of be:longing.

JS malban

There’s a lot to be said for the foods that mean home to us.  These foods can connect us all over, wherever the ingredients are available and accessible, and wherever the expertise for preparing them in just the right way has been honed.

I’ve never felt so disappointed as when I couldn’t conjure up the vehicle in which I would be transported home mentally because I couldn’t put together ingredients precisely enough to produce the right smells to take me where I wanted to go.  Or because the key version of a particular ingredient just didn’t grow – or wasn’t cultivated widely – where I found myself, so the taste simply couldn’t occur where I was.  I’ve never felt so far away from comfort as when I couldn’t prompt the memories I sought to wash through me; when I couldn’t reproduce the intuitive feel of them, because just thinking of them wasn’t the same.

When I couldn’t re-create the atmosphere I was after, I could always misremember.  And as I would, substitutions could sometimes start to sit in for those precious smells and tastes.

But the memories would take on a distortion.

Holding the place only did the job for a time.

Until the ‘real’ version reappeared.

And the difference was dramatic.

Off I could go again, so relieved that I hadn’t yet taken my last trip there.

* * *

During my nostalgia-heavy cooking sessions, there’s a food group that I often leave unapproached.  It takes a moment and a gasp to realise that reproducing something from this group is within the realm of possibility.

The group is – confectionery.

The non-perishables.  The stuff you can stock up on.  The stuff you can pack in bulk.  The stuff you can get through Customs.  Or the stuff you can find imported in a city just over the way.  Confectionery.  Sugar, in one – or some – of its many beautiful forms.

‘Wow.  You mean…?  Could I really…?’  You may be wondering.

But hold your horses, friend.  And if you see any of mine, send them over.  This is a fraught enterprise.

In Lebanon, there’s a set of confections called ملبن – malban.  There are variations of these throughout western Asia and northern Africa; each region has its own delicious take.  Broadly, these are nougats and lokum and variations thereof – confections that are gradually thickened to a gel-like texture usually by mixing a sugar with some kind of starch over heat.  Often, nuts are suspended in them.  They’re glorious.

A short while back, I was longing for a particular one.  A pistachio one – chunks of pistachio thoroughly studding a chewy, fragrant delight.  I know it as “جؤات” – ju’aat. [1]

It was during the early weeks of lockdown and I was feeling stifled that I couldn’t go to Sydney to pick some up.  In truth, I never would have made such a trip in regular times; but knowing that I absolutely couldn’t with the prevailing pandemic conditions, I became adamant suddenly that I needed this non-essential food item and that I would go to lengths to get it.

Cue the development of my overambitious plan to reproduce this at home with existing ingredients and skillset.

* * *

Recipe?  Located.  Translated.

Will?  Yep, I would say so.

Unwarranted faith in own cooking skills?  Absolutely.  Boundless.

* * *

My gosh.  It was going so well in the beginning.

I was truly organised.

I measured ingredients carefully.

I poured them into the pot with flair.

I understood this recipe.  We were meant for one another.

But by minute-7 of stirring (of a stipulated 50-total minutes), I started to feel like I’d made a profound mistake.

I don’t know what kind of upper-arm strength a person needs to stir this kind of mixture, but I do not have it.  Chef Shaimaa Hamed of YouTube had said to stir “vigorously” and with a thickening mixture, this got tougher and tougher the longer things went on.  It wasn’t quite looking how hers had even after 30 minutes of dedicated stirring.

I worried a bit, but something had taken hold of me and I was deeply committed to seeing it through to the end.

Mum had been popping in and out to see how things were going and noted that the mixture wasn’t really doing what it should.  She also realised, though, that I had no common sense left and would continue until my arm fell off; so, she stepped in to help with the stirring.

I won’t disclose the actual number of minutes this stirring blew out to when things still weren’t gelling properly by the 50-minute mark.  It was evident that what we had before us absolutely could not turn into the dream product.  Mum knew this.  I knew this.  Mum tried to save me from myself.  I would not be saved.

I took it right through to the overnight set.

Aaand…

…the texture was all wrong.

Of course it was.  There is no texture victory here.

I dusted those slabs with cornflour anyway.  And in my unfailing obstinacy, I ‘sliced’ them.  (They were not sliceable in the sense that you…  slice something.)

I reflected sombrely.

I wondered about the secrets of those Lebanese confection shops.  I wondered about their suppliers.  I wondered how long it had taken Chef Shaimaa to perfect her recipe.  I wondered if she lifted.

A taste of the hostile globs reminded me again that they weren’t what they ought to be.

But then, with that taste I also found myself exactly where I had intended to go.

Something had gone right.

The smell!

During the long-dead hopeful planning stage of the journey, Mum had suggested adding some crushed mastic to the mix.  It wasn’t in the recipe I was using, which I think was based on an Egyptian variation.  Mum had said it would give it that quality that would make it Lebanese to us.

And wow.  The impact was incredible.

The smell was instantly transportive.  Not really to a place, but it was just the ticket somehow.

And while taking a bite of one reliably spoiled the reverie, I knew I had a way back into it whenever I wanted.

I eyed the pile of them – sealed up in a container – for a long while afterwards trying to figure out whether they could take further intervention.

They could not.

But for the short period ahead of their final annihilation, I was whisked away every time I popped that lid.  And I was content.

© Jasmine Soukieh, 2020

[1] A search for this term online only yields instructions on making stuffed sheep tripe, so… this name might be very town-specific.