Days before a woman is about to give birth, the whiff of cinnamon and caraway start filling the house with their comforting aromas full of warm spicy notes. No Lebanese baby can be welcomed into this world, without the proper and best Meghlé. This dessert is a rice pudding made from rice flour, sugar and cinnamon with ornaments of desiccated coconut flakes, pistachios, walnuts, almonds and pine nuts making it one fancy dessert reserved for such delightful occasions. It is infused with the warming flavors of cinnamon, caraway and anise. This exotic dessert is a taste of our culture, and insight into our spice-filled way of life.
In Lebanon, the different religious communities celebrate their holidays differently. Some traditions though may be identical from one community to another. It is customary, whenever there is a newborn in the family to prepare a traditional dessert for the occasion. In Arabic, it is called Meghlé, literally meaning boiled, because it’s boiled for almost 45 to 50 mns, though it is served chilled in individual bowls topped with the nuts right before serving. This pudding is gluten free because the thickening agent here is the rice flour. It is also vegan, which means it is dairy free too, with no milk, butter or cream.
When visitors come to see the newborn usually bearing gifts, the parents of the new baby are expected to serve Meghlé. Because this pudding is all about celebrating birth, Meghlé is also served on Christmas Eve, as it is a feast celebrating the birth of Christ. In fact, in the mountains of Lebanon, Meghlé was once the only treat eaten during Christmas.
The dish was traditionally served to celebrate the birth of a male heir, but became in modern Lebanese tradition a celebration dessert for all new born. The fact that caraway seeds are good for feeding mothers, it’s traditionally served to new mothers to increase milk production and alleviate gas. Usually, it is prepared in large quantities and offered at home. The rest is sent to relatives and friends so that they join the celebration.
It is said that this brown pudding is symbolic of the fertile rich soil, and the nuts on top are like seeds that will sprout and grow on this soil, a perfect symbol for birth.
Usually the grandmother of the baby would be busy in the kitchen making it, taking extra care to decorate the elegant little serving plates with different nuts. The competition to an excellent Meghlé is fierce. A good recipe is taken to the grave. It’s no big secret that close relatives and loved friends get extra nuts on their Meghlé. So the next time you are congratulating your friend for her newborn make sure that you count how many nuts are on top and you might find out a thing or two!
After this almost therapeutic 50 minutes of stirring in the kitchen over a stove consumed in the soothing repetition of whisking, you know it’s done when it drips from the spoon as a sharp line. The secret of success of Meghlé is in the continuous stirring over medium low heat, making sure to stir continuously, scraping the bottom of the pot to prevent the pudding from sticking.
You can also make the same recipe with minor differences and enjoy it as a drink, thick, warm and spicy. This tea bears the same name Meghlé because it uses similar spices and nuts. It is originally drunk in the Shouf region. The smell of the blend of spices gently simmering is enough to elevate your soul.
Here is my recipe:
4 cups of water
Honey to taste
1 tbsp. anise seeds
2 cinnamon sticks
Small ginger grated to taste
Assorted nuts: pistachios, walnuts, almonds and pine nuts
Peel the nuts and set in the bottom of each cup. Heat the water for the tea stirring the honey in it till it dissolves. As soon as the water boils, add everything else and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain. Pour in the cups with the nuts at the bottom. Sahtein!