9 Best Substitute For Mahlab

Mahlab Substitute

Mahlab, an enchanting spice hailing from the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern culinary traditions, is derived from the ground kernels of the St. Lucie Cherry. Its complex flavor profile, merging sweet and sour nuances with a hint of almond and cherry, has been a culinary secret of many cuisines for centuries. But, what happens when you want to concoct a dish requiring Mahlab, and it’s nowhere to be found in your local grocery store?

That’s where the exploration of substitutes comes into play. This guide aims to unfold the best alternatives that can mimic Mahlab’s distinct flavors and aromas in your dishes. From the aromatic essence of cardamom to the sweet undertones of nutmeg and the unique blend of Chinese Five Spice, we’ve compiled a list of potent contenders to stand in for Mahlab. Whether you’re a seasoned chef or a home cook looking to experiment, these substitutes are not just alternatives; they’re ways to bring diversity and innovation to your cooking, ensuring that your culinary journey continues undeterred.

What is Mahlab?

Mahlab is a spice made from the ground seed kernels of the St. Lucie Cherry. The seed is cracked open to reveal a tiny kernel that’s ground to make Mahlab spice. It’s been a staple in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine for centuries, often used in sweet dishes such as pastries, cookies, and bread. Mahlab lends a unique combination of sweet and sour flavors, with a hint of almond and cherry. Its delicate and nuanced flavor profile makes it a valuable addition to any dish.

Quick View of Substitutes For Mahlab

  1. Aniseed
  2. Cardamom
  3. Nutmeg
  4. Almond Extract
  5. Vanilla Extract
  6. Chinese Five Spice
  7. Tonka Beans
  8. Poppy Seeds
  9. Allspice

Best Substitutes For Mahlab

Finding the right substitute for a distinct spice like Mahlab can be a bit tricky, but not impossible. Each alternative has unique characteristics that can replace Mahlab’s flavor and aroma to varying degrees, depending on the dish. Let’s delve into these substitutes and understand how they can serve as Mahlab alternatives.

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Aniseed, also known as anise, is a highly aromatic spice known for its sweet, licorice-like flavor. It’s commonly used in both sweet and savory dishes across various cuisines. Aniseed’s strong, unique flavor can be a good match for Mahlab, primarily when used in baked goods.

The licorice tone of aniseed pairs well with the flavors of pastries and sweet bread, mimicking the sweet aspect of Mahlab’s taste profile. However, aniseed lacks the sour note present in Mahlab. Therefore, it might be beneficial to combine it with a souring agent like lemon zest or citric acid in recipes to fully encapsulate the Mahlab experience.

Aniseed, just like Mahlab, is used sparingly due to its potent flavor. So, when substituting, start with a small amount and adjust according to taste. Remember, when experimenting with strong spices, it’s always easier to add more than to remedy an overly flavored dish.


Cardamom, a spice native to India, is another substitute for Mahlab. Known for its intensely aromatic and sweet flavor, it is a common ingredient in desserts and pastries, making it a suitable stand-in for Mahlab in such recipes.

Though cardamom lacks the sour note inherent to Mahlab, its unique flavor profile, which hints at citrus and mint, adds an intriguing complexity to dishes. The sweet undertone of cardamom closely resembles the sweet component of Mahlab, making it a viable option.

Substitute Mahlab with cardamom in equal amounts, keeping in mind its strong flavor. Always remember to adjust the quantity as per your taste preference, ensuring that the spice does not overpower the dish’s other flavors.


Nutmeg, a spice renowned for its warm, sweet flavor, is widely used in baking and dessert recipes. This characteristic makes it a good contender as a Mahlab substitute. The sweetness of nutmeg is quite similar to the sweet aspect of Mahlab’s flavor profile, and it can bring a similar warmth to baked goods.

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However, nutmeg lacks the sour note of Mahlab. So, when using it as a substitute, you might want to add a souring agent like a little lemon zest to your recipe. Since nutmeg can be quite potent, start with small amounts and adjust according to taste.

Almond Extract

Almond extract, made by combining almond oil with ethyl alcohol, imparts a strong, sweet, and clear almond flavor to dishes. As Mahlab carries a slight hint of almond flavor, almond extract can make a good substitute.

Almond extract can be quite potent, and its flavor profile doesn’t capture the entirety of Mahlab’s complexity, particularly the sour undertone. Thus, it’s recommended to use it sparingly and possibly in combination with other substitutes or a souring agent to achieve a closer match to Mahlab’s unique taste.

Vanilla Extract

Vanilla extract, derived from the pods of the vanilla orchid, is commonly used worldwide to enhance sweet dishes. Its rich, sweet, and slightly floral notes can add depth to recipes, much like Mahlab does.

While vanilla extract doesn’t fully mimic the flavor profile of Mahlab, it can still provide a similar depth and complexity to dishes. It’s particularly suitable as a substitute in baked goods and desserts where the unique flavor of Mahlab is not the star of the dish but acts as a flavor enhancer.

Chinese Five Spice

Chinese Five Spice, a blend of star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan (Chinese) peppercorns, and fennel seeds, has a complex flavor profile that encompasses sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and spicy tastes.

Given this range of flavors, Chinese Five Spice can be a suitable Mahlab substitute, particularly in savory dishes. The sweet and sour components of this spice blend can mimic the unique taste of Mahlab, while the other flavors add an extra layer of complexity.

Tonka Beans

Tonka Beans, native to South America, have a sweet flavor with notes of vanilla, cherry, almond, and clove. This unique combination makes them an excellent substitute for Mahlab, as they share a similar flavor profile.

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Tonka beans are often used in desserts, and their sweet and slightly fruity flavor can mimic the taste of Mahlab quite closely in such dishes. However, they’re potent, so it’s advisable to use them sparingly and adjust to taste.

Poppy Seeds

Poppy seeds, harvested from the opium poppy, have a mild, sweetish flavor with a crunchy texture. Although they don’t perfectly mimic the taste of Mahlab, they can be used as a substitute in some recipes, primarily for texture rather than flavor.

When using poppy seeds as a substitute, consider pairing them with other spices on this list to better replicate the taste of Mahlab. For instance, combining poppy seeds with a small amount of almond extract could work well in baked goods.


Allspice, also known as Jamaica pepper, is a spice that combines the flavors of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. While it doesn’t match the sour note of Mahlab, it does provide a sweet, warm taste that can work as a replacement in certain recipes.

To achieve a closer match to Mahlab, consider combining allspice with a souring agent like lemon zest or citric acid. As with other potent spices, start with a small amount and adjust according to your preference.

Substitutes for Mahlab: Nutritional Profile

Almond ExtractGluten-free120g0.5g0g0g
Vanilla ExtractGluten-free370g1.6g0g0g
Chinese Five SpiceGluten-free80.3g2g1g0.3g
Tonka BeansGluten-free371g8g1g1g
Poppy SeedsGluten-free453g3g2g1.5g

*The values are approximate and are based on a ¼ cup serving.


With the world of spices at your fingertips, you can experiment and find that perfect balance of flavors to replace Mahlab in your recipes. Although each substitute has its unique characteristics, they all offer a blend of flavors that, when used right, can mimic the taste of Mahlab closely. Remember, the key to successful substitution lies in careful experimentation and adjusting the amounts according to your taste preferences. Happy cooking!

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