Best treats of the Middle East
If your knowledge of Arabic sweets is confined to baklava, then you have to make the Middle East your next trip. Arabs excel at sensual pleasures, and a well-crafted dessert is considered high art.
I saw more types of sweets than savoury dishes. It’s an intimidating constellation. Here are a few of my favourites and where to find the best of each.
A deceptively simple blend of milk, sugar, corn starch and rose water, it’s thick, warm, and more comforting than your mama’s hot cocoa on a winter night. When cooled, it congeals like gelatin and can be spooned as a dessert. Get creative with toppings: cinnamon, crushed nuts, shredded coconut, etc.
Best one: El-Mina, Lebanon
This seaside suburb of Tripoli has a little shop that specializes in warm liquid treats. Go to the Christian souk and ask around for it.
The edible equivalent of an oily four-hand massage given by two Arab beauties with roses in their hair. Fresh cheese is baked under semolina cake and the whole thing is drowned in sugar syrup. Served on a plate or to go in a sesame flatbread, it should be classified as a dangerous substance. Thankfully, it isn’t.
Best one: Jenin, West Bank
There’s an unassuming sweet shop called Shalhoub in the central shopping area of Jenin. Unlike regular knaffeh, they bake it in vermicelli pastry. The cheese is fresh and gooey and the outside crispy.
It’s not a cannelloni, it’s akawi cheese and semolina flour pressed into sheets and rolled with ashta cream. Although bland on its own, it resembles a lighter cheesecake once you douse it with sugar syrup.
Best one: Tripoli, Lebanon
The Hallab family of Tripoli is famous for sweets. Lore says that after a nasty fight, the three Hallab brothers split up the family business, each running their own sweet empire. They are all fantastic, especially their cream-based sweets like halawet al-jibn.
Whether in the Hebrew or Arabic domains, this dense, crumbly sesame paste is delicious on its own, topped with nuts or as a sweet dip with pita bread. For my money, the Israelis do it best.
Best one: West Jerusalem, Israel
I don’t like endorsing rude pricks, but one seller in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market makes perfect halva with a scary flavour variety: coffee, passion fruit, pomegranate, and nuts are just a few. Must spend a minimum of 40 shekels. Look for his stall near the wine shops. And brace for hostile service.
Arabic ice cream
On the first spoonful you notice that the ice cream of the Arab world is different. It’s gooier and gummier, almost like a taffy. A key ingredient is Arabic gum, a resin form the mastic tree (not to be confused with gum arabic, with is derived from the acacia tree). Try the Arabic flavour, which tastes of nuts, rosewater, and sesame.
Best one: Ramallah, West Bank
There are many reasons to visit the Palestinian capital. The ice cream is just another. Try Baladna on Main St.
It looks like a turnover, but it’s sweet and creamy. A crumpet-like pancake is filled with ashta cream, fried, and doused in syrup. Crispy on the outside, cool and buttery inside.
Best one: Damascus, Syria
Jasmatiyeh Street, which I dubbed the Las Vegas of sweets, has a line of shops offering fresh kataif. Try any of them.
You can spot this simple semolina cake in any sweet shop by the almond placed atop each cut square. That’s the traditional way. Some shops, however, add their own poetry by tinkering with the density and toppings.
Best one: Aleppo, Syria
The Aleppan version of namoura is the closest you’ll come to dark matter. You could power a hyperspace engine on it. It’s impossibly chunky, gooey, and layered with pistachios and cashews.