Eating and drinking is an important and part of Arabic culture, though the nature of Arabic food is not often clear and distinctive to outsiders, compared to say, Italian or Indian cooking. Traditional desserts especially, are something of a blank for most foreigners. Here we provide a little primer for some of the sort of dishes we love and cherish here in Saudi Arabia, when you fancy something sweet. Many of these can be obtained here at the restaurant in our hotel in Madinah, or served up fresh and delicious at local food stalls around the city.
In antiquity, the ancestors of the people of the Arabian peninsula lived on a fairly simple diet, derived from the food sources at hand, namely wheat and barley, vegetables (cucumber, courgettes and onions), meat in the form of hardy animals such as lamb, chicken and goat, often accompanied with bulgur and rice, plus as an added advantage, some of these animals produced the milk and thus the yoghurt that also shaped the cuisine so much. And finally of course there are the fruits (citrus fruits, dates and figs) and many types of nuts (almonds, peanuts, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts) that have led to a plethora of different cakes, sweets and desserts, which we will brush the surface of today.
It is fair to say that more sweets are eaten at Ramadan, than during the rest of the year, as sweets and fruit are often eaten between two meals. There is one type of sweet, Qatayef, which is only really eaten at this time. It has been nicknamed Arabic pancakes, but is perhaps more akin to a filled dumpling. They are stuffed with sweet cheese and nuts (mostly walnuts) and then fried. One gourmet advises that “although they may have heaps of Qatayef on the shop counter, I often ask to have mine fried up in front of me - they are at their most delicious straight out of the frying pan!”
Image and Qatayef recipe courtesy of Anissa of Anissas.com
Zainab’s Fingers or Usbu al Zainab, is another pancake-style dish, covered with syrup seasoned with cardamom and lime, and ends up quite crispy. It is apparently named after one particular cook called Zainab/ Zaynab/ Zaeneb probably from Lebanon, who developed this recipe about a hundred years ago.
Images: This photo, plus a handy recipe for Zainab’s Fingers, is found on Shab’s Cuisine blog
Baklava – we hesitate to include Baklava here, as there are contrasting views as to its origins – some say it is of Turkish/Ottoman origin, while others maintain that the name alone gives it away its Arabian origins, as it can be derived from two Arabic words- baql (nuts) and halawa (sweet.) However the Mongolians say the same, citing their word Bayla (to tie up.) Whatever the truth, it has achieved such incredible general popularity all across Asia and the Arabian world, that we feel it is worth a mention regardless. Although there are different variants and many different Baklava recipes from Turkey (where it’s often topped with a creamy dairy product called Kaymak) to the Arabian peninsula (where it is made with pistachios, honey or sugar syrup) and from Armenia (where they flavour it with cinnamon and perhaps cloves) to Azerbaijan (where they add egg yolks), Baklava generally speaking, has the same basic ingredients: buttered sheets of Phyllo pastry dough and ground nuts, normally almonds, pistachio or walnuts, which is then covered in a sweet syrup.
Image courtesy of AuzamKitchen
Ma’amul/Maamoul are butter cookies filled with pistachios, walnut, almonds or dates, as in the case of this recipe. They are normally served at celebrations in Saudi Arabia and all across the Middle East, but are delicious and surprisingly easy and quick to make, and last quite a few days without refrigeration, an important feature of many desserts in this hot climate.
Image courtesy of Ara’s Pastry.com
Basbousa are small square cakes, popular not only here but also along the whole Eastern Mediterranean. They are made principally from semolina and while they are often topped with an almond or ground coconut sprinklings, they are not overly sweet, not that is, until they are served with syrup or honey. These little treasures go extremely well together with a cup of hot tea or coffee.
Recipe thanks to A&L on Xawaash.com. Image courtesy of Al Bohsali Mediterranean sweets co.
Simple dates - no recipe or fancy stuff here. Just the chance to enjoy one of the great natural blessings of the country is a joy at any time, and is of course a religious tradition especially at Ramadan, when a date is symbolically eaten to break the fast. Interestingly, this tradition may owe something to the fact that the folk knowledge is correct that dates are fantastically good for you; a sort of natural multi-vitamin pill chock-full of 7 vitamins and 11 minerals, and generally accepted to be good for the respiratory system and to help against cardiac conditions, anaemia and constipation, to name but a few. They also give you a lot of slow-release energy to last well into the day ahead. Image courtesy of Muaznasir on Khaleaf.com
We hope you have enjoyed this little summary of desserts. We have tried to cover all the main ones, but of course there are a million to choose from, so if we’ve missed out your favourite, do please let us know what it is!
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