Indulge in some of the Gulf’s favourite traditional desserts
Just as the Gulf has inherited biryani from India and Vimto from the Brits, baklava is a Turkish import that’s been wholeheartedly embraced. This rich, sweet treat is made using layers of filo pastry filled with chopped nuts (typically pistachios or walnuts) and held together with honey or a syrup flavoured with rose water or orange blossom. It’s then served at room temperature and garnished with sprinklings of ground nuts.
You just can’t talk about desserts of the Arab world without mentioning kunafa – the Middle Eastern version of cheesecake. Kunafa is originally a speciality of the Levant, but is popular across the region. Its base is a stringy, stretchy cheese akin to mozzarella (often Nabulsi cheese from Palestine; the city of Nablus is renowned for its kunafa), which is then rolled in pastry or shredded filo dough and topped with sugar or honey syrup. There are numerous ways to create this dish, depending on each country’s typical recipe, but each variety brings something utterly delicious to the table.
These little fried dough balls are the perfect gift for any discerning sweet tooth. Also known as ‘luqmat al-kadhi’ or ‘Zainab fingers’, they’re crispy on the outside, soft and squidgy on the inside and drenched in honey or sugar syrup, which is often flavoured with saffron and cardamom. They’re then rolled in toasted sesame seeds for a bit of extra crunch. We couldn’t tell you where they originated from, but we can tell you we’re glad they exist, and you will be, too.
All year round, ma’amouls are a common sight in Khaleeji and Levantine kitchens, but during Ramadan, and for Eid, these are particularly popular. The little shortbread pastries are great as a sweet and savoury pick-me-up snack, as they’re typically stuffed with dates and walnuts or pistachios. Perfect for enjoying with friends over a pot of tea or Arabic coffee.
This little stuffed mini pancake is rarely absent from iftar tables during Ramadan and for Eid celebrations throughout the region. Traditionally, qatayef was prepared and sold by street vendors in the Levant and Egypt. Now, however, the rest of the Middle East has adopted the sweet and savoury creation. The qatayef batter is typically fashioned into a pancake, folded into a half moon, and then filled with unsalted cheese or a mixture of nuts, raisins, sugar and spices, or even fruits such as figs or apples. It’s then deep-fried and served with syrup, and enjoyed as a sweet snack to see you happily through the evening.
Rangeena This simple yet famous Middle Eastern dessert is made with dates, flour, walnuts and spices such as cardamom, nutmeg or cinnamon. Not much is known about the origin of this dessert, but it is enjoyed throughout the Middle East in its various forms – and under different names – from Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to right here in the UAE.
This is arguably the Middle East’s most famous dessert. In a nutshell, it’s an Egyptian version of bread pudding made with puff pastry, condensed milk, cream, nuts, sultanas and shredded coconut. Its origins are less definable, however, as there are numerous legends surrounding its birth. The one we like best is of a Sultan who got a little peckish during a hunting trip. He stopped off at a nearby village and had the local villagers call upon their best cook to whip him up something sweet. The cook? Why Umm Ali (‘Ali’s mother’) of course.
Zahlabiya Yet another international dessert import is this chewy, pretzel-shaped sugar biscuit called zahlabiya, otherwise known as jalebi in India. It’s a little dated in the culinary world right now, and it’s so sweet it makes your teeth hurt, but it’s also definitely one of the most recognisable desserts on the market. The bite-sized treat is made by deep frying flour batter in various funky shapes and then it’s left to soak in sugar syrup (sometimes flavoured with rose water). These can be served warm or cold.