SIDON, Lebanon: With the end of Ramadan just around the corner, a favorite Lebanese sweet starts to appear in shops and homes around Lebanon – the chewy, walnut-stuffed treat known as malban. Traditionally a Turkish sweet, malban first arrived in Lebanon during Ottoman times, spreading throughout the region and particularly taking root in the coastal city of Sidon, which is known today for its delicious sweets.
With the coming of each Eid al-Fitr, the malban comes out of hiding, ready to eat after 40 days of preparation.
Mahmoud Nakouzi, who is busying selling sweets in his shop in Sidon at this time of the month, boasts that his grandmother, Samya Arabi, is the one who brought malban to Sidon after living in Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century. She liked the taste and decided to learn the craft of malban herself, becoming the first sweet maker in the city so her children and grandchildren would have a better future.
Today, her grandson is called the “king of malban” by his customers, yet the Nakouzi family is not the only family from Sidon to inherit the tradition. Other well-known malban makers in Sidon include the Abu Draa, Hijazi and Dimasi families, in addition to dozens of homemakers who prefer to make the sweets themselves by hand.
According to Saim Hijazi, who learned the trade from his father who inherited it from his father before him, it is important to preserve the craft in its traditional form.
“The malban is a Turkish sweet that doesn’t need a machine because it is best made by hand. The most important thing is cleanliness. What distinguishes it from other sweets is it takes the longest time to make,” Hijazi says.
The process requires a lot of patience, Hijazi says, as he goes on to describe the art in detail.
Using a needle, the first step is to thread walnuts on to a rope which is about 125-200 cm in length, keeping 10 cm between each walnut. This step alone can take 15 days.
The next step is to make the liquid mixture that coats the walnuts and creates the chewy texture. The mixture is made from flour, sugar and mastic (a type of plant resin used to make Arabic gum and other Turkish sweets), all cooked in a copper cauldron.
Once the mixture is ready, the next phase is to cover the ropes one at a time with the cooked liquid. After three days, this step is repeated again and again – usually four times in total – and then the ropes are gathered up, chopped into pieces and sold. At Hijazi’s shop, customers can enjoy the treat and all this effort for LL10,000 per kilo of malban (LL15,000 per kilo with extra walnuts).
“The hanging malban forms a beautiful mosaic, fascinating to look at while it’s being made. It’s as though it was created by a talented painter,” Hijazi says.
“Although making malban is hard work, it is an important product in our shops where we also sell nuts and sweets. We need to preserve it and pass it on to our children like our fathers and grandfathers did before us. We also make innovative versions of malban, covering it with chocolate and milk, but the traditional flavor is the most popular among our customers.”
Hijazi says Sidon’s malban is also sold across the region, even reaching Europe and America by way of families sending sweets to their relatives abroad.