As I was growing up in Lebanon, there were times when produce was hard to come by. The war created a siege around the country and shops didn’t always have stock. Bakeries would open a few times a month and hundreds of people would line up to get bread. Dad would take my oldest brothers with him to buy bread as there was a quota of 2 or 3 bags per person. We would also receive bags of flour, rice; legumes, oil, powdered milk, sugar, canned beef, etc, as form of national aid, or i’ashet. Power would go out for months on end as the fighting worsened, and even TV was a luxury. Once, my brother Fady and I were watching “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” on tape, and the power went off. The cassette player didn’t work on generator power because it was an old, power hungry machine. And so, six months went by: school finished, summer came, we played, read books, fought and reconciled, and then school started again; and then one day, out of the blue, the power comes back and what’s the first thing Fady and I do? Finish the last 10 minutes of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”, of course.
You can imagine, when there’s hardly any fresh produce, things can get a bit less than imaginative in the kitchen. But imagination was never an issue in the Kassab family. When my siblings and I would ask dad to buy us cornflakes, he’d say, “Cornflakes? Just toast some Lebanese bread and mix it with milk”. Or when we asked for some donuts, he’d say “Donuts? Have mom make you some oowamat (Lebanese yoghurt fritters), or zlebiyeh”. I love dad. Pretty good solutions when his kids were being unrealistic in their demands. And guess what, we proceeded to have our Lebanese bread cornflakes and our oowamat donuts, enjoyed them and life went on.
Oowamat and zlebiyeh are two forms of fried dough, which in fact, and I admit this now, makes them very similar to donuts. What was good about them is that with the limited amount of items in the cupboard one could still make a decent dessert. Oowamat are made by mixing yoghurt, flour and yeast, waiting for the dough to rise, then deep frying them into beautiful round balls that are then dipped in sugar syrup. They are meant to be light and airy, but with a glassy crisp exterior. The sweetness comes solely from the sugar syrup and melds with the acidity of the dough and creates a tasty harmony. The sourness of the yoghurt makes the dough more like sourdough bread, but luckily, you don’t need three days to make these. It should take around 1 to 3 hours depending on the temperature for the dough to rise. You can make oowamat the traditional way, in small round balls around 3 cm in diameter by piping them straight into the hot oil; or, like me, you can have a bit of fun and make a free form fritter which I find makes for more crunchy “donuts” as it increases the surface area the dough has in contact with the oil. Oh, and by the way, I used agave syrup instead of sugar syrup, but you can use a medium consistency simple sugar syrup that can soak in as well as having a nice stickiness that clings to the outside shell.