Many and wonderful are the varieties of confectionery that appear for Eid Al Fitr.
The sweet taste of Eid
For every "Eid mubarak" uttered over the next few days as a steady stream of guests is welcomed into homes across the region, a platter of assorted sweets - sticky, syrup-drenched baklava, a few mlabas (sugar-coated almonds) or rich, chocolate truffles - will come hand in hand with the greeting. This tradition, synonymous with Eid, dates back hundreds of years and represents Arab hospitality at its finest.
Abdallah Zalatimo, the general manager of Zalatimo Sweets, says the giving and receiving of sweets during Eid is an important part of Arab culture.
"It is customary for people to offer different sweets for different occasions," he says. "At engagements, people serve knafeh; when visiting someone in hospital, it is traditional to take a plate of baklava; mamoul in its various assortments is the primary dessert at Eid."
In 1860, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Abdallah's great-great-grandfather opened the first incarnation of Zalatimo Sweets: a small takeaway shop selling mshabbak (flaky pastry filled with nuts or cheese and topped with sugar syrup). Things have changed dramatically since Mohammed Zalatimo's day; the company now sells an extensive range of sweets and pastries and is one of the largest and most esteemed exporters of confectionery in Jordan.
Zalatimo says his staff have been hard at work over the past few weeks. "Both Eids - Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha - are the busiest time of the year for us. We sell very large quantities of mamoul. All this takes time; the sweets are produced in Jordan in one of our three kitchens and we strictly adhere to our family recipe."
Mamoul is of course the sweet of choice during Eid; festive tables are considered bereft without a plate of these beloved semolina cookies stuffed with pistachios, dates or walnuts.
For Aida Mansour, proprietor of Abu Dhabi's boutique dining spot Café Arabia, making mamoul during Eid stirs up powerful memories. "I remember my grandmother, mom, aunts, uncles, as well as us kids, sitting in a circle on a blanket with a big tray, the shape stamps, dates mixed with spices and the mamoul dough. Everyone was assigned a duty and after the mamoul were made, my grandmother would take them to the village oven at midnight.
"We would watch them cook; no one could wait to eat the hot crispy fresh mamoul on Eid morning."
Mansour says mamoul has become associated with special occasions because of the time-consuming nature of its preparation as well as the expensive ingredients that the recipe requires. The effort, she says, is well worth it. "The smell of spices from the freshly baked mamoul lasts for at least three days, so your whole house is filled with a special welcome and spirit which lingers long after all the mamoul have been eaten and Eid has passed".
The Dubai-based television chef and cookbook author Suzanne Husseini also advocates making mamoul from scratch. "The aroma of freshly baked mamoul coming out of the oven is like nothing else. With each bite a delicious surprise filling awaits. Eid just wouldn't be Eid without these treats."
However, perhaps because of the intricate nature of the preparation and the sheer quantity required, the majority of people do opt to buy at least some of their Eid sweets ready-made. Ehsan Hosseini, company director for Vivel Patisserie, says that this is indicative of the sheer variety and standard of the sweets and pastries available in the UAE, which he believes to be "second only to Paris in terms of world variety and quality".
The first Vivel store opened in Dubai almost 20 years ago and has built up a reputation for producing delicious, handmade pastries. Anna Vladimirova, the general manager, says that a special atmosphere fills their shops and cafes in the run up to Eid.
"We have visits or orders from local ladies, some of whom have placed orders with us for the past 15 years," she says. "They bring their own dishes or serving platters for us to fill, many of which we have grown to recognise over the years. We look forward to seeing our regular customers, offer tea in the evening and encourage them to sample some of our new products."
The team at Vivel has been working flat-out in anticipation of the Eid rush. "Because everything is handmade, production starts a month in advance, with the busiest day of the year being the night before Eid - people come and pick up their orders throughout the night, with the last ones usually being collected around 5 or 6am," says Hosseini.
While mamoul remain the most popular choice, Hosseini tells me that recently, customers have shown an increasing interest in new products. "During the year, people tend to stick to their established favourites. At Eid, though, they are more willing to experiment with their purchases. When guests come visiting, our customers want to impress; everyone seeks to have the most elaborate Eid table or the most beautiful display - they want to generate coffee table talk."
The platters at Vivel are certainly striking: delicate pastries with cardamom and pistachio hues, sables, Florentines, light and crumbly nacochi (ground chickpea biscuits), lokums infused with mint, lemon or rose, candied fruit and nuts, zolombia (pastries dipped in saffron syrup) all handcrafted, elaborately arranged, wrapped up and awaiting collection to be enjoyed in homes across the UAE.
Suzanne Husseini’s recipe for mamoul (pistachio, walnut and date pastries) from her book When Suzanne Cooks
Makes approx 100 pastries
1 kg (6 cups) fine semolina
2 tbsp mahlab, ground
3 cups clarified butter, melted
1 tsp instant yeast
1 tbsp sugar
2 cups full-fat milk, lukewarm
1 cup pistachios, chopped
5 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp rosewater
1 tbsp orange blossom water
1 cup walnuts, chopped medium fine
5 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp orange blossom water
zest of ½ orange
1 tsp cinnamon
2 cups dates, chopped and pits removed
1 tbsp ground nutmeg
1 tbsp melted butter
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