The meteoric rise of the Lotus cookie in the UAE
Spiced short crust biscuits, speculaas, or speculoos, were historically served on December 5 and 6 to celebrate St Nicholas' Day. Their humble appearance belies a powerful and unique taste - a fusion of gingerbread, caramel and spices.
Today, the Lotus biscuit is served in desserts across the UAE, and has quickly transcended from its traditional origins, into a modern dessert sensation.
Yummy In My Tummy, a young Emirati-owned cafe, boasts a particularly unique dish: the Lotus pizookie, or pizza-cookie - an infusion of chocolate chip cookies, vanilla ice cream and Lotus spread.
"Originally the word pizookie comes from an American famous dessert which combines salted caramel, topped with ice-cream," explains Abdulla Al Ali, who owns the cafe with his brother, Ahmed.
"As a sweets and snacks start-up we always explore new ideas of dessert making and serving."
Lotus' popularity has soared so high over the past few months that it even seems to have eclipsed the classic, Nutella, he adds.
Yummy In My Tummy, which has branches in Dubai and Ajman, has also combined Lotus with marshmallows, ice cream and cheesecake.
While some thought the Lotus "bubble" was bound to pop before too long, it has "kept flying".
"Many popular bloggers started using Lotus in same period right after Salt used it with their ice-cream," he says, referring to the pioneering Kite Beach pop-up burger truck, cofounded by Emirati and Saudi "foodpreneurs", Deem Al Bassam and Amal Al Marri.
"Salt is not a dessert place," explains Al Marri, "it's a burger place.
"We wanted to introduce a dessert, but we didn't want to have five desserts on the menu - we just wanted to have one iconic dessert. That was the Lotus softie."
Salt created its own mix from scratch, because there was no other Lotus-based ice cream available. "Once we did that, others had Lotus ice cream as well, so we kind of set the trend."
Salt is one of three establishments run by the Independent Food Company. Its sister restaurant, Parker's, in Dubai, famously requires guests to find and present hidden keys to dine in at peak hours. It, too, has it's own speculaas dessert, the Lotus Drama - Biscoff pudding with vanilla ice cream and Lotus fudge.
Despite an abundance of delicious and creative desserts, this is Parker's top selling item. However, it is the company's oldest restaurant, Switch, in Dubai Mall, which Al Marri credits with being the originator.
"Lotus is a Belgian dessert - it's been around for ages, but no one had used it creatively in a dessert.
"I was in San Francisco last year they had a Lotus brand coffee shop. They had the Lotus Biscoff latte, and when I tasted it, it was just a normal latte with the spread - it had no good taste."
Similarly, she says Lotus had a cafe in Kuwait, which added spread to items such as crepes and truffles, but not biscuits - small, curved rectangles with the word 'Lotus' written across the centre. By the start of 2015, "everybody knew Lotus," says Mohammad Arzouni, general manager at Switch.
"Many Kuwaitis come on weekends, and they used to come and ask 'hey guys, do you have any Lotus?' and we were like 'no, but what is Lotus?'
"It was surprising for me, I didn't know what Lotus was. I researched it and then I found the biscuit."
He remembered eating the biscuits as a child in Lebanon, one of the few Middle Eastern countries where it was available at the time.
While the earliest seeds of the Lotus phenomenon may have been the marriage of Lotus spread with crepes and truffle in Kuwait, Switch took things one step further - integrating the biscuits themselves into desserts.
"It was very hard to get it here. I remember now, very well," he smiles. "It was in Ramadan 2015 - I remember I ordered from Belgium and it took like two months."
Al Marri adds: "There was a joke last Ramadan, when they were saying 'What are you having for fatoor?' and they would say 'Lotus biryani'. It went to that extent. It was too oversaturated, but still, people liked it."
When supplies ran out, the company tried to make its own spread from scratch, says Al Marri. "But people noticed."
While some expected the Lotus trend to fade out, the three-month order delay is a testament to its longevity.
Some supermarkets, such as Spinneys, now stock imported Lotus products; a red and white packet of 25 biscuits will cost around Dh9.
Arzouni says: "We thought that it would shine for maybe one year and then it will be done, but after that, everybody started asking about and craving new things with Lotus.
"It has become a need for people now, not a want."
He says the local market loves food - and appreciates creativity. "Nutella has been on the market a very long time and when we were kids, it was just Nutella, with bread or toast. But today, we've made it something very big and many businesses run because of Nutella."
Even Switch owes much of its early success to its famous Nutella bar.
"People like to try new things here. When you come with a new idea or product, everybody will talk about it."
One of Switch's earliest hits was a black and white brownie, which is served with a milk chocolate syringe. "From all over the GCC, people come to Dubai and the come to Switch to try this thing."
Al Marri says that food works in trends, just like fashion, and social media goes a long way to helping connect with the local market.
"I think we reach the local market faster - it's easier to grab their attention for such flavours, because our menus have very strong flavours."
While such flavours appeal to Gulf Arabs first, the restaurants have become popular with a huge spectrum of people.
"We love that, we really want-to appeal to everyone." Despite the company's many ventures into Lotus-based treats, Al Marri believes there is more work to be done.
"I think it's staying, like Nutella. It's not going anywhere. It's a classic."
While there are other brands available, Lotus seems to be key. "Like Nutella, people tried copying it, but Nutella is Nutella."
However, unlike Nutella, Lotus has not been around in the Arabian Gulf for that long, and nostalgia has not been a factor in its meteoric rise.
"It was a biscuit only available in Lebanon and then Qatar had it, but it wasn't available in our market.
"It's not a flavour that we grew up with, but it's going to be a flavour that the kids now will grow up with."
Though some have doubted Lotus' potential longevity, it seems that in this case, the proof really is in the pizookie.
Updated: August 28, 2016 04:00 AM