Peeling Back the Phyllo on an Arab Classic

“Come hither, my love! Here is what you asked. Here I am to obey your every command. Sit near me and recall the memories of the past as I feed you, from this tray, the sweets of Araby.”
Scheherazade to her husband, King Shahryar

Cookbooks, not just recipe digests anymore, are often as fond of storytelling as the next heartfelt memoir headed to bestsellerdom. (Incidentally, in either category, if you want to make it big, travel to/buy an abandoned villa in/spend a summer roaming/be from Tuscany.) But how many cookbooks are equally storybooks, whose plots and characters are as crucial to the experience as the flour and eggs?

The Sweets of Araby: Enchanted Recipes from the Tales of the 1,001 Arabian Nights, by (sisters) Muna Salloum and Leila Salloum Elias, illustrated by Linda Dalal Sawaya, is that rather brilliant hybrid, and it invokes a time, whether true or imagined, when books were the transference of oral traditions, of age-old stories finally grounded in ink; and a time when hands clutching the finest paintbrushes elevated the text with such dazzling borders and meticulous illustrations as to please the sternest sultan (think Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red). Through the vehicle of 25 of those universally known Tales of the Arabian Nights, the Salloums and Sawaya have painstakingly created a world rife with seduction, rich colors, flavors and aromas.

And the story of the labor of love that became The Sweets of Araby is itself worth the telling—and tasting.

Unearthing the Sweets

Mac mul min al-Tamr (stuffed dates, batter-fried)

On a mission to trace the origins and history of the desserts of their ancestral culture, Muna and Leila, both scholars of Middle East and Islamic Studies, knew they had unearthed treasure when they came across a repository of 10th-century Arab culinary manuscripts.

Third-generation Canadians, Muna and Leila have since childhood delighted in the sweets of the old-country tradition, thanks to their mother and father’s inherited passion for the flavors of Arab cooking. Over the years, their love of the exquisite foods that flowed magically from their kitchen grew into an immense curiosity. How were these delicacies made? Of course, when mother and father and even distant relatives from Damascus refused to divulge recipe “family secrets”—handed down over generations—the sisters vowed to find out for themselves.

What they found in those medieval Arabic texts, to their amazement, were detailed recipes, procedures, and preparatory instructions for making desserts. Indeed, these were the legendary sweets of ancient Baghdadi society, the culture from which were spun, as it happens, the timeless tales of the 1,001 Arabian nights!

Remaking the Sweets

In the course of translating the recipes and actually trying them, it was quickly evident that units of measurement needed to be adjusted—“some cloves” or “as much as you wish of a good quality white honey” wouldn’t cut it. So, cue that montage of failed attempts, the close-but-still-needs-something redos, till out comes the golden, glistening sweet in the very image of the ancestral bakers.

Natif (peanut brittle done Arably)

And then? Well, taste of them, obviously! But Muna and Leila, wisely, didn’t rely on their palates alone to determine each sweet’s authenticity, accuracy, its kinship with the modern variation they grew up on. They called on their friends, a rather ferociously devoted group of women in Toronto who gathered on several occasions to test them all. Representing all parts of the Arab sphere, they argued over differences between each country’s spin on a particular dessert. Verdicts were rendered; verdicts opposed each other. Muna and Leila fought some, conceded to others. In the end, all passions lovingly voiced, they had a collection of old/new recipes that most everyone could get behind.

And the recipes? Start with the all-purpose, rosewater-infused simple syrup, Qatar. And there’s the Arab blueprint for the sweet that evolved into baklava, called Kunafah. And what is perhaps the original donut hole, spiced and lightly fried balls of dough called Luqum al-Qadi. There’s Natif, a peanut brittle of pistachios and almonds. And Mac mul min al-Tamr, which is a date stuffed with pistachios and cloves, battered and deep-fried, then dipped in Qatar. Just to name a few!

The Art of Araby

A manuscript of classic tales intermingling a collection of classic recipes, as it turns out, is only half of the charm of The Sweets of Araby. With just its words, we’re treated intellectually, perhaps, and gastronomically. But overlay the book with Linda Dalal Sawaya’s page-by-page, handmade, full-color illustrations—a mosaic of bright reds and blues and greens, depicting scenes in each tale, the plates of sweets, the traditional borders that hold every flavor in—and it’s suddenly an absolute one-of-a-kind, a work of art from end to end.

May you be royally seduced by The Sweets of Araby.

~Tom

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