For our colum­nist Arva Ahmed, pre­par­ing ma’amoul was a tri­umph. Never mind that they weren’t per­fect.

Arva Ahmed tries her hand at bak­ing the cel­e­brated Eid cookie ma’amoul – a sweet bite of nos­tal­gia for many

Friday - - Contents -

Two signs herald the start of Eid Al Fitr in the Arab world: The cres­cent moon and the sug­ar­dusted ma’amoul. Ma’amoul is a Le­van­tine cookie stuffed with fudgy date paste or chopped nuts, usu­ally wal­nuts or pis­ta­chios. About four days be­fore Eid, my lo­cal Pales­tinian restau­rant boasts tiered stacks of ma’amoul that fly off their trays to be wrapped, sealed and bagged by the kilo. But ma’amoul is by no means an ex­clu­sively Mus­lim cookie. It ap­pears dur­ing Chris­tian Easter and Christ­mas and Jewish Purim. Iraqi food his­to­rian Nawal Nas­ral­lah traces the cookie’s ori­gins to an­cient Baby­lo­nia, where these pas­tries were baked as a New Year’s of­fer­ing to Ishtar, the Akka­dian de­ity of ‘love, war, sex­u­al­ity and fer­til­ity.’

Grow­ing up as a third-cul­ture child in Dubai, I have mem­o­ries of samosas and baklava flour­ish­ing side-by-side on our Eid tables. But ma’amoul mem­o­ries I do not have. In fact, I must have tasted my first ma’amoul less than a decade ago. This late re­al­i­sa­tion was not par­tic­u­larly life-chang­ing be­cause crumbly, of­ten dry ma’amoul could not stand up to my pre­ferred cookie cri­te­ria: warm, moist and chewy.

Those who have grown up in ma’amoul­mak­ing house­holds may scoff at my su­per­fi­cial cri­te­ria. To fully ap­pre­ci­ate this stuffed cookie, they might ar­gue, one needs to chew on the nos­tal­gia baked into them.

A few days be­fore Eid, moth­ers and grand­moth­ers of the Le­vant will pre­pare short­bread dough with gen­er­ous amounts of but­ter, samna (clar­i­fied but­ter or ghee), oil, or some­times all three. An assem­bly line is set up. You could be as­signed to rolling balls of crumbly bat­ter, fill­ing them with date paste or crushed nuts, press­ing them into pat­terned wooden qaleb (moulds), or man­ning the ovens un­til the del­i­cately stamped cook­ies are baked. I have read many a po­etic ac­count where the writer rem­i­nisces of how the aro­mas of freshly bak­ing ma’amoul would wash over her child­hood home dur­ing Eid. How would I even be­gin to un­der­stand this sen­ti­ment when I had never played a part in the hyper-sen­sory love story be­hind this fes­tive cookie? My in­ter­ac­tion has been the emo­tion­less Cliff Notes ver­sion where the cashier rings up a tray of cook­ies, all to be had in a home where the oven slept all day.

This Eid, I re­solved to give ma’amoul a fair chance. I could only write my own ma’amoul love story if I took the tra­di­tional route and baked them at home.

I hunted down ma’amoul moulds at a spe­cial­ity Ara­bic store called Douri Mart and in my in­fi­nite en­thu­si­asm, pur­chased all three kinds avail­able – the tra­di­tional sin­gle-cookie wooden qaleb, the cream-coloured four-in­one plas­tic mould, and the flimsy push-lever plas­tic ones. As a novice ma’amoul maker, I wasn’t leav­ing any­thing to chance.

My ma’amoul de­but be­gan in mo­ments of hun­gry tur­moil be­fore if­tar. The process was not tor­tur­ous at all. To the con­trary, as I sifted the fine grains of semolina through my fin­gers, brush­ing them through the melted but­ter, watch­ing the gran­ules clump and darken a shade with the liq­uid fat, I felt a ther­a­peu­tic calm. It was the sort of calm you feel when you run your

It was the sort of CALM you feel when you run your fin­gers through sand on a warm beach; the breeze smells of a sea of ARO­MAS – ORANGE BLOS­SOM, rose­wa­ter, car­damom, mas­tic and mahlab

fin­gers through wet sand on a warm beach. And the breeze on the beach smells of a sea of aro­mas – orange blos­som, rose­wa­ter, car­damom, mas­tic resin and the per­fumed seeds of the St Lu­cie Cherry, or mahlab.

In an at­tempt to cap­ture the com­mu­nal spirit of the cookie, I re­cruited my hus­band for a two-per­son assem­bly line. Shap­ing ma’amoul was a chal­lenge – the nec­es­sary com­pli­ca­tion of any love story worth its happy end­ing. We ar­gued over tech­nique, switched roles, the­o­rised in­ter­ven­tions, fer­reted out more tools and nearly re­signed mid­way, our fin­gers cramped with ef­fort. It was well past mid­night when the ma’amoul emerged, bruised but tri­umphant.

I crouched, transfixed, by the hot oven, in­hal­ing gusts of melted but­ter, mon­i­tor­ing the ma’amoul as their in­tri­cately tat­tooed bod­ies tanned from cream to golden brown. But some­thing was not right. My cook­ies left the oven look­ing parched, hag­gard, as though they were about to crum­ble with the sheer ex­haus­tion of bak­ing.

There is some­thing en­dear­ing about even the most man­gled cookie when it emerges out of your own oven, warm and vul­ner­a­ble. This was not fail­ure, but a twist in a story whose nar­ra­tor needs more prac­tise. I will re­visit ma’amoul next Eid: more but­ter here, less wa­ter there, an­other hour of rest­ing the dough. The saga will con­tinue, even if it didn’t start with love at first sight.

Arva Ahmed of­fers guided tours re­veal­ing Dubai’s culi­nary hide­outs (fry­ing­panad­ven­tures.com).

The easy way: Buy ma’amoul, like these pis­ta­chio ones from Al Sa­madi Sweets

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