Food obsession: halawat al jibn
Two years ago, I found myself shivering in the chiller room of Al Samadi Baklava factory, which has produced pastries that have fattened me up over the years from our neighbourhood baklava store. The factory manager, a stout man with the imposing proportions of a retired football player and the intimidating charm of a senile grandfather, stretched out his plump palm to unveil a timid white roll. Like a doting fan and granddaughter, I obediently indulged. The shy roll dissolved in my mouth with a fleeting smoothness that was sweet, creamy and delicate all at the same time. If an angel were to flutter near your lips, the cool touch of halawat al jibn is what that flutter would feel like.
Halawat al jibn is an Arab dessert that uses dough made out of cheese (typically akkawi) and semolina. The cheese dough is rolled out, spooned over with thick Arabian clotted cream (ashta) and twirled up like milky white cigars that are drizzled with sugar syrup and rose water. For the final seal of perfection, the lads at the baklava store will gently tap a spoon of ground pistachios over the sweet cheese bundles. Depending on the day, their moods and the planetary patterns that may be, one of the lads might even offer to dot the halawat with candied rose petals as a final exquisite garnish.
Some recipes for this dessert give credit to Homs in Syria as the birthplace of halawat al jibn. Others, including one by the famous food writer Anissa Helou, point to northern Lebanon. Food history aside, the thing that is selfishly important to know is that many a baklava shop might carry halawat al jibn, but they will not be displayed alongside the ostentatious trays filled with syrupy baklava. It is up to you to ask. So when you next visit a baklava store, make sure you point to the fridge and beg the lads to bring the angels out.
Arva Ahmed founded Frying Pan Adventures (www.fryingpanadventures.com), which takes people on tours through hidden culinary gems in Dubai
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