Baklava might well the most revered Middle Eastern treat, with the claim to its flaky filo origins hotly debated between the Turks and the Greeks. Rather than wasting time on debate, focus on the small pouch-like ‘bukaj’ or delicately rolled ‘asabi’ from Lebanese-born Samadi Sweets. These are best sampled warm so that the ghee within the filo layers and warm cashews or pine nuts can melt together into one magically decadent moment.
For more lively layered action, tuck into an Egyptian feteer tossed with far more skill than that needed to polish off the pastry at your dinner table. Bakers at restaurants like Soarikh and Al Ammor conceal a range of sweet fillings between the sheer sugar-doused layers. Anything goes, from warm custard to naughty Nutella.
Arabic clotted cream or qashta whips up lucrative business across many traditional Middle Eastern sweet shops during Ramadan. Perfumed with the essences of rose and orange blossom, this luscious cream smears its way across discs of golden kataifi noodles (osmaliyeh), into parcels of puff pastry (warbat), over cakes of caramelized semolina (mafroukeh), and into baby pancakes pinched at the edge, rolled in pistachio powder and drizzled with syrup (qataif). Qataif deserve a special mention because families seek them most commonly during Ramadan, sweeping up ready-made pancakes from the market and filling them not only with cream, but also with cheese, nuts and even Nutella! The most decadent versions are folded over into crescents, deep-fried and soaked in syrup – enough to make a fast-breaker regain his lost intake of calories for this year. And the next.
Another cream variant that owes its allegiance to local Persian shops is Noon-e-khamieh, or rose-perfumed cream cuddled into voluptuous choux pastry. Pair the seductively textured version at Pars in Satwa (behind the basketball court) with a petite istekan of mint tea – your last slender sight before the creamy repercussions hit.
Completely contrary to the cool, creamy cheesecake creations of the West, the Middle East focuses on more firm, yet easy-to-melt cheeses like Nabulsi and Akkawi for its desserts. A syrup-drenched slice of Knafeh Nabulsiya, the Palestinian pie with crunchy kataifi noodles atop warm melted cheese, is known to bewitch even those who staunchly deny having a sweet tooth. To avoid experiencing giggly delirium after one exceedingly rich slice at the Palestinian Qwaider Al Nabulsi, call for a scathing dark cup of unsweetened Turkish coffee.
Rolls of Halawat Al Jibin are far more inconspicuous than the ostentatious trays of knafeh, sleeping quietly in shop fridges until a knowledgeable customer walks in for a piece. A paste of Akkawi cheese and flour are set into tender sheets, sliced lengthwise, spooned with qashta and rolled into ‘cheese cigarettes.’ The most noble kinds are graced with rose-perfumed sugar syrup, ground pistachios and preserved petals of lemon flowers.
Deep-fried dumplings are such an obvious sweet creation that it is rare to find a community in the city that doesn’t sizzle up dough for dessert. From the Emirati legaimat twirled with unctuous date molasses at Al Fanar (Jumeirah) to the crispy yellow tubes of zullbiya stacked in any Iranian sweet store, regional fritters can give any Western doughnut shop a run for its sugar. Other variants include pinecone-shaped macaron spiked with aniseed, syrup-bursting spheres of luqmat al qadi (‘small bites fed to the judge’) and cloyingly sweet logs of Persian bamieh that are aptly shaped like their nutritional nemesis: okra.
One could pen an entire whitepaper on the types of cookies, from crunchy sesame-studded barazek and fair garaybi butter cookies to ma’amoul stuffed with ground walnuts, pistachios or fudge-like spiced date paste. A personal favourite during Ramadan are the olive-oil infused ka’ak, tender date-filled rings reminiscent of orange blossoms, mahlab (Saint Lucie’s cherry), cinnamom, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves. If an Iftar buffet table assaults you with a confusing array of cookies from the East and West, the choice is obvious: leave the chocolate chip cookies for the simpletons.
Basbousa is one of the most popular semolina cakes across sweet havens of the city, though a personal favourite is the coconut-infused one at Asail Al Sham. Each syrup-drenched square typically boasts an almond at the top, or more extravagant versions are completely encrusted with mixed crushed nuts. The Lebanese sfoof at Samadi is another moist rich treat, its claim to fame being the unmistakable spiced aftertaste of turmeric used in the batter.
The binary world of halwa comprises sweet (Arabic: helou) concoctions made with either starch or with a nut butter like tahina. Bowls of translucent Omani halwa grace everything from traditional marriages to funerals, though the best places to indulge are at the shops in Abu Hail where the treat is still molten warm and fragrant with saffron and cardamom. But be warned, these quivering bodies of caramelized sugar, starch and ghee induce a most severe bout of sugar coma. Less commonly found but still of decadent importance is Emirati khabees made with smoky roasted flour and ghee, or fat fudge-like slabs of tahina-based Rahesh, best enjoyed from the Iranian sweet shops around Nasr
Square in Deira.
May no sweet discourse be complete without a chubby scoop of ice cream. Lick past plain Jane vanilla towards something more regional, like Persian saffron and rosewater ice cream studded with pistachios and knots of cream (bastani). While the version at Iranian Sweets (Al Rigga Road) is delicious solo, it can also be placed atop a bed of faloodeh – frozen sweet vermicelli stirred with lime or sour cherry juice.
Another popular ice-cream is the pistachio-crusted Syrian booza from Asail Al Sham Sweets, which looks more like a Swiss roulade than an ice cream. But ice cream it is, and a violently pounded one at that. The liquid ice cream mix contains exotic polymers (mastic and sahlap) which are vigorously beaten to render a delicately chewy, hard-to-melt frozen treat.
If eating your way through this list doesn’t cast a dizzying saccharine spell over you (and an additional few pounds), then strut across to any Middle Eastern sweet store during Ramadan. The Holy Month is the time when sweet makers dip into all their creative reserves to bring out the best of both traditional and new-age treats. Be it the sanobari, sohan or shabbakiya, there’s bound to be a sweet ethnic discovery just waiting to be eaten.
[This story is exclusive to FoodeMag. Images: Arva Ahmed]