It’s been some 80 years since immigrants from Turkey and the Balkans introduced Israel to malabi, a creamy dessert flavored with rosewater, drizzled with a sweet syrup and often topped with a layer of crushed nuts or shredded coconut.
Many cuisines feature desserts similar to this pudding, such as the traditional British blancmange. In each case a milk- or almond milk-based custard is thickened with rice flour or cornstarch.
Having become a foodie trend in Israel, malabi can now be found sold from carts and simple storefronts and hip little stands, as well as on the menu at chic restaurants.
Here are five standout places for eating malabi, when you need something cold and sweet to snack on. But be warned: Malabi is the kind of dessert that eats like a meal.
1) In Tel Aviv two friends, Iddo Gal and Avi Avital, opened HaMalabiya, a quaint little stall (now with three locations) where malabi is the main item on the menu, accompanied by beer on tap, espresso and live music when the sun goes down.
They created their dairy and vegan malabis based on their grandmothers’ recipes and some internet information, with homemade syrups (classic raspberry and pomegranate, vanilla cinnamon and lemon cardamom, and a rotating selection of caramel, chai and watermelon) that are made in-house as well. The toppings include cookie crumbs, based on Gal’s love of cheesecake with crumb topping. Most importantly, their malabi is mixed with a rosewater made by someone down south who “gets the rose petals before they’re dried by the sun,” said Gal. “This isn’t the kind of rosewater that tastes like soap. It’s really homemade and special.”
There are currently three HaMalabiya locations in Tel Aviv: The first, at the corner of Allenby and Gedera (60 Allenby Street, corner of Gedera), is the largest, and includes indoor seating. The second is in the middle of Jaffa’s flea market, known as Shuk Hapishpeshim (11 Amiad, Shuk Hapishpeshim), offering some great people-watching. The third and most recent location is in the new Allenby-Rothschild Shuk (36 Rothschild Boulevard), an upscale, indoor food market where HaMalabiya fits in with the creamy gelato cart and craft brew stands.
2) When Iddo Gal wants to eat someone else’s malabi, he heads to Dajani, a small, unadorned storefront along the still ungentrified section of Jerusalem Boulevard in Jaffa, where the Levi family has been making malabi for three generations. The family is Bulgarian, and the storefront is named for the Dajani Hospital, which was next door to the original storefront.
The Levis serve three kinds of malabi: milk, cream and one based on water rather than milk, as malabi was often served after a meat meal. But don’t expect any coconut scattered across this malabi; Sarit Levi shudders at the very idea.
“Coconut takes away from the flavor,” she said. “We only put coconut on the sahlab.”
Sahlab, a winter specialty, is an orchid flour drink flavored with orange blossom extract, sprinkled with cinnamon and served warm with a spoon. Dajani also serves three flavors of gazoz, syrup-sweetened soda water redolent of old Israel.
Still, not everything stays the same around here. The family-owned business — brother Shlomi is in charge of the daily malabi preparation — just opened its second branch at 16 Shalavim Street in Jaffa, in light of the Tel Aviv light rail construction work that’s heading its way.
“We have to think ahead to when people won’t be able to park,” said Levi. “How else will they get their malabi?”
Dajani, 95 Jerusalem Boulevard, Jaffa
3) Everyone knows that some of the best food stops are on the road, and malabi is no exception. When driving on Route 443, be sure to stop at the entrance of the Ben Shemen Park, where Shahar Hazan serves up water-, milk- and cream-based malabi at Malabi Limon, drizzled with a particularly potent pink syrup and ground peanuts, for a soft crunch on top.
His cousin runs the family’s other wagon at the Palmahim Beach, continuing the tradition their Turkish grandfather started. Malabi Limon, Ben Shemen Forest (Mizpe Modiin) and Paratroopers Reserve (Nahal Sorek national park, Route 4311).
4) In Haifa, head to Wadi Nisnas, an Arab neighborhood home to myriad produce stalls, coffee stands and falafel shops, and, of course, malabi. The Wadi Nisnas bakeries are renowned for their baklava, with window displays and shelves stacked high with the honeyed pastries. The malabi, however, is always available in the refrigerator, and this local version generally packs a far stronger scent of rosewater. The topping may be crushed pistachios, but it’s more likely to be crushed walnuts, providing a slightly bitter note to the classic dessert. Konditora HaMizrach (The Eastern Bakery), originally from Nazareth, 34 Allenby Street, Haifa.
5) Jerusalem offers some high- and low-end options for malabi. Try the vegan malabi drizzled with pomegranate syrup after dinner at the upscale Eucalyptus restaurant just outside the Old City walls, or head to Mifgash HaSheikh (The Sheikh’s Meeting Place), a Jerusalem institution best known for its fresh pita and bread pockets filled with warm cheeses and vegetables. It always has a stack of malabi containers in the fridge.
Here the malabi is served in plastic take-out containers, and the friendly staff will drizzle syrup and scatter coconut to adorn the dessert. Come for the atmosphere as well, especially late at night, when customers stop by for a quick snack before heading home. The bakery is named for Etzel HaSheikh, a corner in the Old City where young Jerusalemites used to hang out, eating watermelon and drinking sahlab, until the First Intifada started in the late 80s. That’s when this hangout opened in Talpiot, followed by several other branches.
Mifgash Hashech, 23 HaUman Street, Talpiot, open 24 hours Sunday through Thursday, and until 2 p.m. on Fridays.