A sweet tradition in the Middle East, and the US
Arabic pastries are a treat this time of year, and you don't have to go to the Middle East to find them.
During the holidays, as families gathered and traditional desserts made their appearance, I began to think of home. But not the Boston apartment I recently moved into, or my parents' house in L.A. My yuletide yearnings wandered to Beirut, Lebanon, which was my adopted home for the past two years, before I returned to the US this summer.
One treat in my daily life there had been the overwhelmingly sweet sensation of golden, flaky, nutty Arabic pastries. A patisserie on Bliss Street seemed to infuse all nearby sidewalks with its honeyed smell. The delightful scent enveloped me in a moment of sugary euphoria every morning when I turned onto the appropriately named road and every evening on my way home.
Arabic sweets are to the Middle East what Christmas cookies are to the US: festive treats meant to be shared among family and friends.Densely packed, these sweets are best enjoyed in tiny bites about the size of a peanut M&M. Varieties abound and differ by region, but usually involve flour, phyllo dough, semolina, sugar, butter, eggs, pistachios, or dates, which are molded and baked to golden, pleasing rotundity. Holidays come richly arrayed in qataif, kaak, and other traditional nut- or fruit-filled sweets and pastries.
December and January host a number of holidays celebrated in the Middle East: Muslims' Eid al-Adha falls on the final days of this year, for instance, while Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7. With so many good reasons to feast, I thought, someone in Boston must be making the treats.
So I went looking for immigrant families who had brought with them the tradition of Arabic sweets. In the pursuit, I got to sample my favorite golden pastries for the first time since leaving Beirut. And I got a taste of the close family ties, hospitality, and loud group gatherings that characterized some of my fondest Middle Eastern memories.
Karima Salman and her husband, Khaled, moved in with their daughter in Cambridge, Mass., to help take care of their new grandchild, leaving behind their small Palestinian town near Ramallah, in the West Bank. In addition to being a full-time nanny, Karima has taken on the traditional matriarchal duty of providing Arabic desserts for family and friends. On the morning of my visit, she prepared a pan of layaly libnan – a semolina-based cake topped with cream and chopped nuts.
In Middle Eastern households, Khaled told me, every woman knows how to make these sweets. They also give kids an opportunity to have fun in the kitchen. Molding a doughy ball around a colorful pistachio-cinnamon center to make mamoul is a treat for little hands. "Eat sweets, have a good time, make the kids happy," he philosophized.
In the US, Karima has double the December holidays to prepare for. "As Muslims, we celebrate Eid al-Adha," her husband explained. The "festival of the sacrifice" refers to the story of Abraham and his son Isaac, which is found in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. "But in America, we also celebrate Christmas."
These delicious sweets have also gone outside the home – without losing their familial flavor. One such venue is Andala ("Nightingale"), whose yellow Grand Opening sign is still flapping happily over the entrance in Cambridge. Here, it is a man who bakes goods for family and friends. The cafe is a longtime dream of Sami Herbawi, a Palestinian immigrant from Jerusalem.
"We just want a place for friends, family, and neighbors to enjoy," Mr. Herbawi explained. On a recent weekend, the clatter of a party swirled up the stairwell from the staging area downstairs. "Join us," he said as he rushed by with his 10-year-old daughter's birthday cake. I descended into a cacophony of girls jumping, boys playing, and parents chattering.
Sweets fill the entire top right side of Andala's singe-page menu, and Herbawi brought me one of each kind. I had come hungry and was secretly salivating. He set the plate next to the tea he had already served me. "Ahlan wa sahlan," he said over and over. "Welcome." It's one of the most common phrases in the Arabic language, reflecting a time-honored culture of hospitality.
Even in a well-established Middle Eastern grocery store a few miles away, the line between business and family remains nicely blurred. Store owner Elizabeth Basmajian, part of the Armenian population whose predecessors fled to Lebanon (and Syria) during World War I, had to leave 26 years ago when Lebanon's civil war worsened.
Mrs. Basmajian never thought that food would become her livelihood. Yet, despite stiff competition from nearby Armenian-run stores, Arax Market has succeeded for more than 20 years. The crowded shelves of familiar Arab brands reminded me of the small shops I frequented in Lebanon.
Then, there they were, in the center of the store: the glistening, glowing Arabic sweets. I fought the impulse to dive face-first into the several square feet of honey and sugar.
"I have my recipes in here," she told me, lifting a finger toward her deep red hair. She uses a special butter-ghee mixture to make her pastries and, when possible, prepares her own phyllo dough for baklava.
Basmajian finds the opportunity to dispense motherly advice along with her namoura and harisa. "I decide my customers' orders," she said. Once, somebody requested 40 pounds of sweets for a party. She made him buy less.
"I'm like their mother," she added, before shooing me out so she could get on with her business. She and all my new friends have holidays to celebrate – and cater – for another week.
As for me, I'll be wanting more sweets tomorrow. But the helpful heaping of Middle Eastern family warmth and good cheer should tide me over for the Northeastern winter to come.