I don’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I know which direction I was facing the first time I had malabi. (Southeast.) If not for the urging of my server, I might have skipped right past it on the menu. To think I almost missed it.
With likely ancestral roots in Persia, malabi is a staple conclusion to Middle Eastern meals, long ubiquitous in Israel, for example — in restaurants, in storefronts around town, from mall kiosks and from street carts.
Malabi is rose water milk pudding — delicate in flavor, firm but creamy, not too sweet — most often topped with a simple berry sauce and chopped pistachios. The final flourish is up to the chef. Mine is topped with shredded halvah. Others, coconut flakes and dried fruit. It’s to be enjoyed as a whole: Sink your spoon in for each bite and savor the sum of its parts.
It’s impossible for me to think about malabi and not consider it through the prism of a pandemic-altered world, and how easily food — steeped in time and place, carved into memory, craved — connects us to our past, our present and our future. What more easily than a specific dish can remind us equally of where we’ve been and of where we next wish to go?
I’ve thought a great deal about malabi in the past few years. I’ve missed it. A close friend and I, sharing a devotion to fine sweets, used to meet about once a month to eat malabi at MishMish, a Mediterranean restaurant in Montclair, N.J. We soon started to order lighter fare for our mains to ensure plenty of room for dessert. Malabi was, for us, entirely the point.
The first summer of the pandemic, in the new abnormal, our only option was to order it as takeout. I arrived to find a handled brown paper bag with my name on it waiting for me on a small table outside, right about where I once sat eating malabi for the very first time. Through the front glass, I glimpsed rows of tables, empty and dark, and saw no one when I took the bag and left.
Back home, my friend Aleta arrived, and we ate our malabi at opposite ends of my outdoor table. We were glad to have it, of course, but it wasn’t the same, because the world, and we, sitting far apart, were no longer the same. Neither of us suggested we do it again.
The restaurant soon closed. I spoke to the chef and owner, Meny Vaknin, a few months later, and he told me I could still buy malabi over the counter at the restaurant’s sister establishment, Marcel, a casual eatery at the opposite end of town. It wouldn’t come with the berry sauce and pistachios, nor with the shredded halvah, but he invited me to call ahead and he’d have those parts ready for me.
It seemed fitting for what was then our ongoing reality: something prized, something sweet, separated into parts, gathered and assembled as best we were able.
Things are better now. As we’ve emerged, falteringly at times, many of us have been fortunate to find what we loved, what nourished us, still there — or perhaps finding its way back. Marcel now stocks malabi in small Mason jars with the berry sauce included.
I used to contemplate what for me would signal that we’d truly made it through to the other side, and it always arrived in one simple vision: friends at a table in a crowded restaurant, indoors, unmasked, talking, laughing. Eating malabi.