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Savouring Arabic sweets at Al Samadi

“Two overjoyed kids in a candy store!” that’s what we transformed into as we pushed open the glass door of Al Samadi sweet shop in Deira. Surrounded by trays full of sweet treats in all hues, oozing appetizing aromas, it was overwhelming to make an appropriate choice to begin our sugary adventure. So, we hopped from one end of the store to the other, curiously absorbing each colourful detail of the Middle eastern delicacies on display, asking the patient Filipina shop attendant for their names, toppings and ingredients. This conversation opened a window to the several unique Arabic desserts I had never heard of, let alone tasted.

Now here I have to confess that I have never been a big fan of baklava and kunafa, the most common Arabic desserts laid out in iftar meals and in Middle eastern restaurant menus. But I have enjoyed eating milk based puddings — Umm Ali and Mahalabia. That is why we started our culinary trip at Al Samadi — with the familiar bowl of Mahalabia — only this one was covered generously with sliced pistachios, slivers of almonds, topped with cream and cherry and looked more like the pastry version of Mahalabia.

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Creamy and crunchy, we savoured each spoonful of the milk dessert made by boiling corn starch mixed with flavoured milk. Interestingly the dessert gets its name from a seventh century Arab general called Al Muhallab ibn Abi Sufra . The general was served the milk pudding by his Persian cook and he liked it so much that he named it after himself. It is today a popular dessert in all the Middle Eastern countries. My first memory of eating Mahalabia was in a street shop in Cairo, a much simpler version topped only with powdered cardamom and pistachios.

The bowl of Mahalabia was accompanied by a cream filled Ghraybeh. These melt in the mouth Middle eastern butter cookies are a staple all year around, but at Al Samadi, the shortbread came with a rich filling of cream, making it a mix of crumbly and sweet squishy when eaten. Well-known in the middle east Ghraybeh has a string of variant pronunciations and diverse ingredients — in Iran it is called qurabiye and is made with almond flour, sugar, egg whites, margarine and pistachios. In Morocco it is made with semolina and goes by the name Ghoriba. It is also an equally popular tea time snack and dessert in Syria, Palestine, Turkey and Greece. This Lebanese version was filled with cream, unique to the country called kashta or ashta. Made by boiling milk with a tinge of rose or orange blossom, kashta is a local delicacy and used as a filling for many other desserts. At al Samadi most of the sweets, specially made for Ramadan, were filled with kashta.

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Here they look appetizing as toppings on kunafas and inside qatayefs (the d-shaped folded desserts in the picture). Qatayefs, I discovered, are specially made during Ramadan in many Arab countries. They can have various fillings — including unsalted cheese or an assortment of nuts, are usually fried and coated with sugar syrup or drizzled with powdered sugar.

The kunafa, of course, is more well-known and comes in several shapes and colours. A historic sweet delicacy from the Levant region it is made with  phyllo pastry dough and also with semolina. Layered with cheese, cream and nuts kunafas are soaked in sugar syrup. At Al Samadi there were trays full of kunafas, pictured above is the popular bird’s nest (also called osh al bulbul) kunafa filled with ashta and topped with nuts. For this a stringy version of the kunafa dough is used. And for that bright orange colour confectioners add food dye in the kunafas.

In this sweet paradise the most delicious of all desserts turned out to be the mafruka.

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Very similar to the kunafa the mafruka is a Lebanese dessert made with crushed pistachio dough, clotted cream and semolina. It was buttery soft, moist and heavenly.

A visit to an arabic sweet shop is incomplete without tasting the baklava. So iconic is the baklava to the Middle East that its origin and invention is widely debated and claimed by several nations in the region.

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The crunchy sweet treat is made by layering phyllo pastry dough and chopped nuts, drenched in a sticky sugar syrup. It is typically prepared in large trays and then sliced into different shapes. For the baklava lover Al Samadi has quite a wide range — one of their most popular is the bukaj baklava — it looks like a purse or a parcel (bukaj in Arabic) and is stuffed with pistachios, pine nuts or cashews. The Borma baklava is cylindrical in shape and is made with stringy kunafa dough and nuts. Cashews crushed inside phyllo dough shaped as fingers are called Asabi and chopped pistachios sandwiched between layers of kunafa dough become Basma.

There is quite a staggering variety of Arabic desserts at Al Samadi. There is enough to try one sweet every day of the month, spoken like a true dessert fan. Originally established in Lebanon in 1872 the store today has branches in Ukraine, UK and in the UAE. We hope to come back soon for more luscious times.

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