When we think of the sweeter side of the Middle Eastern cuisine, the Middle Eastern Desserts, we are often content with the delicious rice puddings and baklava which stops us from exploring further. However, the extensive cuisine which is an amalgamation of Arab, Persian, Israeli, Kurdish, Greek, Azerbaijani, Turkish and Cypriot cuisines has endless dessert options to offer to people looking to satiate their cravings.
“Most people in the Middle East and North Africa have a penchant for all things sugary. Sweets occupy an important place in our lives, and every important occasion, rite of passage or religious event has a specific sweet associated with its celebration.” Anissa Helou, Sweet Middle East (cookbook)
The Middle Eastern cuisine is known to be rich in flavour and layered with hints of spices, attar, dates, honey and rosewater which imparts an exotic fragrance and taste to the desserts. While most Middle Eastern Desserts have a long history attached to its birth and revolution, a few ones are relatively new and born out of fusion gastronomy.
Also known as Kunafa, this traditional cheese cake originated in Nablus, Palestine in the 10th century. Served piping hot, this dessert is famous across Middle East for its distinct flavour and glorious golden-brown crust. The authentic dish is made of a certain kind of white-brine cheese called nabulsi along with orange blossom and sugar syrup. It is believed that Kunafa was first prepared when a Fatmid prince, Mouawiyah bin Abi Sufian, faced troubles during the fasting period because of his huge appetite. This dish loaded with cheese and sugar helped him remain satiated and energetic whilst he carried out his daily royal duties. Other regions in the Middle East have taken this old-school recipe up by a notch and added twists to it by making pistachio and nut-filled kanafeh pastries known as Kadaif.
Faloodeh also called “Persian Noodle Dessert” in the West is a classic whose roots can be traced to ancient Persia. When the Persians came to India, they brought with them this flavoursome delicacy which was readily accepted by the Mughals. The Mughals also made some changes to the dessert to cater to their needs whilst its popularity spanned across the Indian sub-continent which is why Faloodeh is still an integral part of Pakistani cuisine.
Essentially a cold dessert, Faloodeh consists of vermicelli-noodles incorporated in sweet syrup and is often garnished with lime juice and nuts. Even though the original version is still available everywhere, one might find altered versions of this heritage recipe in modern ice-cream stores.
Also known as Om Ali or Omali, this dessert straight out of glorious years of ancient Egypt is similar to the Western classic, bread and butter pudding. It is an Egyptian classic which translates to Ali’s Mother and the recipe dates back to the Ayyubid dynasty. According to history, it is believe that this dessert’s recipe was created after the ruler’s wife, Shagaret El Dorr, ordered the death of Umm Ali who had killed her husband. To celebrate the cessation of her rival, Dorr ordered the royal kitchens to create the most delicious dessert and distribute it across Egypt for free.
Made of puff pastry, milk, cream and nuts, this dessert is a must-have.
Believed to be one of the most amazing things whose genesis was from Egypt, the Qatayef is a delicious dessert which is consumed in abundance during the month of Ramadan. The sweet dumpling stuffed with nuts made its first appearance around the end of Omayyad era. It was first tried by the Omayyad Caliph Suleiman bin Abdel Malik during Ramadan which led to the sweet been associated solely with the holy month. Another saga believes that Qatayef was born out of a pastry competition to impress an Abbasid Caliph.
Whilst the authentic versions are still stuffed with Akkawi cheese and nuts, the avant-garde qatayef might use nutella, raspberries and other fruits to fill the dumpling-shaped pastry.
Bastani Sonnati is a traditional Persian ice-cream which is made by combining milk, cream, eggs, rosewater, saffron and vanilla. A few variants may even have honey or boast of Salep which is a kind of flour made from the tubers of the orchid plant and forms an important part of winter beverages.
The invention of the Persian ice-cream can be accredited to the great ruler, Nasser-o-ddin Shah of Qajar, who fell in love with ice-cream in Paris on one of his official visits. On his return, he commanded the royal kitchens to create a Persian version of the ice-cream using local flavours; however, the king died without having his wish fulfilled. His successor, Mozaffar-o-ddin Shah, continued to work on his father’s dream and introduced Bastani but the secret recipe was not allowed outside the palace walls till 1920s. Akbar Mashti was the first chef to create this delightful version of Persian ice-cream which is savoured across the world and because of his understanding of flavours, Persian ice-cream is also called ‘Akbar Mashti Bastani’.
We hope reading about the history of these desserts has inspired you to view and enjoy these scrumptious desserts in an absolutely different light.
Written byNiharika Nandi
Niharika Nandi is a media trainee who loves exploring the fields of photography and baking simultaneously. She’s a self-proclaimed professional bathroom singer and believes that caffeine runs through her veins. This adrenaline junkie loves to pen down a million thoughts gushing through her mind at any instant and is very vocal about LGBTQ rights.