Category Archives: Of Arabic Origin

Maamoul – Recipes from a Traditional Lebanese Easter

By | dessert, lebanese food, lebanon food, Of Arabic Origin, orange blossom, Recipes | 32 Comments

Happy Easter! It’s really great to be able to share this recipe with you, and maybe from the photo above, you too will feel there are things worth coming back to this world for. This is my tray of maamoul, a traditional Lebanese sweet that is made especially for Easter. Maamoul is a semolina shortbread bound with butter, orange blossom water and rose water which on the inside holds a sweet filling. The filling is either buttery dates, or a concoction of walnuts or pistachios with sugar, more orange blossom water and rosewater. Now consider that for a minute. Imagine biting through that buttery, crumbly crust and getting the faint hint of roses and orange blossoms, followed by the chewiness of pistachios, nutty and sweet. Delicious opulence and comfortable luxury. Maamoul works on so many levels.

If you look through the photo series, you will get a basic understanding of how these Easter cakes are made. You can see the beautiful pattern that is formed when the filled dough is pressed into a traditional wooden mold. There is a shape for every flavour and that makes it easy to know which is which. According to Ludwig’s sister, who’s a real wiz with computers, there’s anecdotal evidence pointing to the tradition of making maamoul on Easter. Apparently the wooden mold symbolises Jesus’ cross, the mold’s pattern resembles the shape of the sponge with which Jesus was given vinegar to drink, the crust contains no sugar in reference to Christ’s death containing no happiness, and the inside is sweet and joyful to symbolise the resurrection. I’m not sure how steeped in tradition all this symbolism is, but at the least, it’s a nice story.

It’s been nine years since I’ve taken part in a maamoul making session, and this is actually my first attempt at it, as it was usually my mother who took care of the whole mission. Long distance phone calls with mom, mirrored by similar efforts from Ludwig resulted in the recipe we used. Just like we used to do, the dough was prepared on Good Friday and the maamoul was baked on Easter Saturday. But unlike being under the strict, observing eyes of our parents, this time we allowed ourselves to indulge in trying the maamoul as it was warm, instead of having to wait for Sunday as tradition requires. I am now convinced that eating maamoul warm is the only way to do it with the filling still gooey and slightly runny. The flavour warms my heart and the scent takes me back to my childhood, and the result is a maamoul I know even mom would be proud of!

Maamoul Recipe

Ingredients – Crust

  • 900 g coarse semolina
  • 150 g fine semolina
  • 550 g good quality butter at room temperature
  • 125 ml rosewater
  • 30 ml orange blossom water
  • 1/2 cup milk (used on the second day)
  • Equipment – maamoul molds bought from a Middle Eastern supply store

Ingredients – Fillings

Fillings are tricky to give amounts with, because it depends on how many types you want to make. Use these ratios as a guideline, and make less/more depending on how much you want to make

  • 2 cups dates and 1/2 cup butter combined in food processor
  • 2 cups coarsely ground walnuts and 1/2 cup sugar with 2 tbsp rosewater and 1/2 tsp orange blossom water
  • 2 cups coarsely ground pistachios and 1/2 cup sugar with 2 tbsp rosewater and 1/2 tsp orange blossom water
  • Try the combinations and adjust the sugar and aromatic waters as you like


  • Knead the coarse and fine semolina with the butter until incorporated
  • Gradually add the orange blossom water and the rosewater until all added
  • Knead for 30 minutes
  • Rest for 12 hours, kneading it around 3 times in between
  • Before you start using the dough, you must knead it one last time, this time you wet your hands with the 1/2 cup of milk and kneading until all the milk is used up
  • Now your dough is ready, create a little ball of dough and make a hole in it, making the sides even
  • Look at the picture that shows the stages of filling the maamoul. Fill with your desired filling. If you are using dates, they should be formed into individual balls to fill the dough
  • Close the dough so that the filling is totally covered by dough
  • Put in the maamoul mold and push firmly but not overly so, otherwise the dough will stick
  • Put a cutting board and cover with a kitchen towel
  • Strike the top tip of the mold on the kitchen towel to release the maamoul
  • Repeat and when you have a tray full, put into an oven that has been preheated to 220 degrees Celsius
  • It will take around 15 minutes to bake, but what you are after is the slightest colouring. You don’t want it to brown
  • Remove, cool down and eat when warm or cold

Ghraybeh with Dulce de Leche Recipe – Middle-Eastern Shortbread

By | dessert, lebanese food, Of Arabic Origin | 15 Comments

ghraybeh with dulce de leche

Before Lili (Pikelet and Pie) packed up and embarked on an adventure in the exotic land of Vietnam, I paid her a visit and became the official custodian of her collection of cook books. Lili also went through her pantry and fridge, and I was given a box of smoked Maldon sea salt, pomegranate molasses that I had convinced her to buy, and a large tin of homemade dulce de leche. Dulce de leche is sweetened milk that has been heated to induce caramelisation. Lili simmered cans of condensed milk for two and a half hours and the result was a buttery sweet caramel, intense in colour and flavour. I try not to make overly sweet indulgences at home, in an effort to avoid type II diabetes and Lainy’s scornful looks, and so the can of dulce de leche sat in my fridge collecting rust as days turned into months.

A few weeks back, I noticed that the coffee shop next door was selling alfajores filled with dulce de leche and I mentioned them to my Brazilian friend Priscila. I often joke around with Priscila about how much Brazilian culture and much of Latin America has borrowed from the Lebanese and the Arabs (in the style of My Big Fat Greek Wedding), especially in the realm of culinary exploits. I scored another win in that department when Priscila researched alfajores, which turned out to be a Spanish specialty of Arab origin, originally named alfakher in Arabic meaning “the grand” or “the luxurious”. This reinforced my opinion that Spanish words beginning with “AL” are originally Arabic.

lili’s dulce de leche

I thought I would deviate a little bit from the modern version of alfajores and attempt to recreate what the Arabs would have invented. The alfajores I’ve tried have a texture and flavour akin to shortbread. So my mind went to ghraybeh, the Middle-Eastern shortbread. Ghraybeh is very simple cookie, containing only 3 ingredients, but as with many Middle-Eastern pastries, the recipe is almost always poorly documented and frustratingly vague. Chef Ramzi uses cups for measure, which is terrible when used with non-liquid ingredients. I encountered complete failure on the first attempt, but have since been able to perfect the recipe. Ghraybeh can be eaten alone, or used to sandwich dulce de leche as I have done here. For the recipe of dulce de leche, please view Lili’s blog here.

Ghraybeh Recipe


300 g cups white, all purpose flour
150 g ghee (dairy, not the vegetable based one)/clarified butter
150 g icing sugar (not the icing mixture, which contains cornflour)
Nuts for decoration such as peeled dry pistachio, almonds or pine nuts


  1. Cream the ghee and icing sugar in a mixer for 5 minutes until fluffy, creamy and white
  2. With the speed on medium, add the flour gradually and incorporate well
  3. Now it’s time to use your hands. Grab the mixing bowl and using one hand, keep kneading the mixture for around 10 minutes. This encourages the flour to absorb the fat and creates the all-important texture. The dough will feel oily and loose, but 10 minutes of heavy kneading should be enough
  4. Cover the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour
  5. Heat the oven to 180 degrees C. Cover your baking tray with baking paper
  6. Take the pastry out of the fridge. You must work fast here as the pastry will go soft if you handle it too much. Pinch a bit of dough and roll it up to a ball between your hands, flatten it slightly and then place it on top of the baking tray and flatten until the shape is of a round cookie.
  7. Repeat until the tray is full, leaving some space between the cookies
  8. Decorate with nuts of choice
  9. Bake for 15 minutes, then take out of the oven and cool down on a cooling rack
  10. If you have dulce de leche, you can sandwich it between 2 cookies. If you are making plain cookies, there is a nice step you can add which involves dipping your hands in orange blossom water when you form the balls of dough, which gives the ghraybeh a distinctive aroma. You can also make different shapes and decorate with nuts

Al-Sikbaj and the Art of Medieval Arab Cookery

By | Of Arabic Origin, Recipes | 22 Comments

al-sikbaj, the extinct ancestor of escabeche

At school, we learn that Lebanon is a Mediterranean country with an Arab façade. Due to this dual identity, we are taught Phoenician history, and it forms a large part of our self image. Even though the rest of the world may consider Lebanon an Arab nation, many Lebanese consider themselves and their country separate to the Arab world. Our Canaanite ancestry is one we hold on to dearly, and with pride. Our refusal to be labelled as Arabs does not stem from a desire to be non-conforming or dissidence. The Arab label is simply not accurate for us as a people. Genealogically, our ancestry does not trace back to the Arabian Peninsula or the Syrian Desert. Linguistically, our language has more Syriac and Aramaic influences than Arabic. But we are considered Arabs only as a government which has political interest in embracing an Arab identity. That said, our relationship with the Arab world is a close one. We learn the history of the Arabs, of their Golden Age, their sciences and medicine, their poetry and their arts. We are also taught to speak and read Arabic (an illiterate Lebanese will not intuitively understand Arabic), which is our formal written language. This has allowed us to gain a great appreciation for our neighbours and to celebrate their achievements, and in this case, we learn to revel in their culinary contributions.

From before the year 1400 AD, there were more cook books written in Arabic than there were in all the languages of the world combined. Arab food was richer, more sophisticated and more complex (made so by the Arab invasions of Persia) than any of its contemporaries. The cuisine had access to an unbelievable variety of products and produce: delicate, heady flavours of saffron and rose water, the sweetness of cane sugar, honey, date molasses and grape juice, the sharp acidity of vinegar, fresh herbs and dried spices, rich fatty meats and game, fruit and vegetables, sumac, cheese, murri (Arab equivalent of soy sauce), yoghurt, etc… Endless combinations gave way to new dishes, many of which remain in existence to this day, and many other that have disappeared, but whose trace can be seen in dishes kept alive in other forms by other cultures.

One of these dishes is al-sikbaj (pronounced assikbaj, s being a solar letter). One of the most popular Arab dishes of its time, al-sikbaj is mentioned in most medieval Arab cookbooks. The name derives from the Persian sikba: sik, “vinegar”, ba, “food”. And so, the basic premise is that meat is cooked in a mixture of some sort of sweetener (honey, grape juice, date molasses) and vinegar. The interesting thing about al-sikbaj is that it is no longer cooked in the Arab world. Its memory now lives on in the Spanish escabeche. During the Arab invasions of Spain and Portugal, al-sikbaj became part of the local diet. The name was changed due to mispronunciation to escabeche, but the recipe stayed more or less intact. To this day, escabeche denotes a meat that has been cooked in vinegar and something sweet. This dish may have also reached South America and given its name to ceviche (but the scholars have not yet agreed whether this is true or not, with several theories on the subject). However, another interesting word that derives from al-sikbaj is aspic. Since al-sikbaj can be eaten cold, as the cooking liquid cools down, it becomes a jelly, and as such, the word aspic (meat jelly) came to be, as an another alteration of the original word.

the opulence of medieval Arab cookery included rare, exotic, indulgent and expensive ingredients

In my reference books, I have around seven different recipes for al-sikbaj. Medieval cookery books provide challenges in interpreting their recipes. For instance, they do not specify quantities. Often, they ask you to add spices, without telling you which ones to use. Same goes for meat, where you do not know which animal or what cut to use. Cooking times are non-existent, and you are asked to use your judgement in determining when to stop cooking.

When I first cooked this dish, I was overwhelmed with excitement. I felt like a scientist or an archaeologist rediscovering a long forgotten world. And truly, when I tasted the end result, this dish blew me away, exceeding all expectations. The flavours of saffron, dried fruit, almonds and rose water really give you a sense of medieval Arabia. I hope this recipe reaches the thousands of Middle-Eastern chefs out there, and I would love to see al-sikbaj make the remarkable resurrection that it so deserves. So here it goes, my recipe for al-sikbaj, put together after many hours of reading through medieval cook books and attempting to reach the right balance of ingredients.

Al-Sikbaj – Recipe

al-sikbaj, the finished product

600 g lamb shoulder without the bones in 1 inch cubes
3 medium onions, slices
3 medium round eggplants, peeled, quartered then halved, then pricked with a fork
cinnamon, 2 tsp
dried coriander, ground, 4 tsp
apple cider or white wine vinegar, 1/2 cup
honey, 1/2 cup
saffron, a large pinch
5 dried figs, quartered
raisins, handful
almond flakes or halves, handful
rose water, 1 tsp
olive oil


  1. Boil the eggplants for 15 minutes, covered
  2. Drain the eggplants and set aside
  3. Cover the bottom of a heavy based pot with olive oil and heat up
  4. Brown the meat and onions really well
  5. Add the cinnamon and coriander and stir for a minute
  6. Cover the meat with boiling water and add 2 pinches of salt. The water should be around 1 cm over the meat
  7. Boil the meat on medium heat for 20 minutes, skimming the froth that rises to the surface
  8. Place the eggplants on top of the meat. Do not stir
  9. Mix the honey and vinegar. The mixture should be both sharp and sweet
  10. Pour the honey and vinegar on top of the eggplants
  11. After 5 minutes take some of the liquid out and mix the saffron with it and pour back on top of the eggplants
  12. Simmer until the liquid has reduced and thickened, around 45 minutes
  13. Add the raisins, almonds and figs on top of the eggplants
  14. Take the heat down to an absolute minimum, clean the sides of the pot with a damp cloth and cover
  15. Keep cooking for around half an hour
  16. When done, sprinkle with some rose water and serve
  17. You can also eat this cold, and it is equally delicious

Of Arabic Origin – Alcohol

By | Of Arabic Origin | 6 Comments

Lebanese grapes, from my father’s garden

The world is a big place and we all have a journey to take. Whether it is moving out of your parent’s house, going to the city or packing up and heading to Australia, you have a story to tell, and that story is encapsulated in the person that you are.

In a similar way, different foods have had their very own journey. Dishes migrate across cultures and continents, get adapted for regional produce and cooking techniques, and changed for local tastes. It is interesting to me how food’s history can be evident and stored in its name, a story told in the singular word. And though the word can be altered by local tongues, in many cases, the dish perseveres against time, and its name still points home.

I intend to write several entries on this very subject, but to demonstrate the idea, I’ll start with something that will make your head spin. I’m talking of course about alcohol.

The reason why alcohol is so dear to me is because Lebanon is one of the oldest wine growing regions in the world, if not the oldest. It is a contraversial subject, but this is what Michael Karam, the author of “The Wines of Lebanon”, has to say (click here for the full, very interesting article):

“The boffins are still arguing about that one, but there is no doubt it was a very long time ago, perhaps 2 million years, when Homo sapiens, on his great trek from Ethiopia, reached Lebanon and tasted the fermented juice of a Vinis Vinifera Sylvestris. It’s a nice thought. More plausible however is that Lebanese Neolithic villages may have domesticated the grape as early as 9000 BC, as they did in Turkey and Syria. What we do know is that 4,000 years ago Phoenician wine, made from vines brought from the Caucasus, was exported and drunk all over the Mediterranean, and that around 1,760 years ago the Romans built a temple to the wine god Bacchus in Baalbek, which still stands today….”

So having established, that yes, alcohol has originated from my neck of the vineyards, what does the word mean? And how is it of Arabic origin?

Alcohol occurs due to sugar fermentation to produce drinks such as wine, beer or cider, and it may be followed by the process of distillation to produce spirits such as vodka, gin or arak. Fermentation is something that happens naturally, and many cultures consider it as a form of preserving food (such as grapes), much like jam making. Distillation is a bit different, and is totally awesome as it’s meant to get you drunk. The technique of distillation of alcohol was discovered by Muslim chemists sometime between the 8th and 9th century. Arabs back in those days were leading the world in chemistry (another word originating from Arabic), arithmetic, medicine and good manners. They discovered the flammable alcoholic vapour, and then they invented the alembic (al embic, meaning the still) which works on the principle that alcohol evaporates at lower temperatures than water. So the spirit was isolated, but the thing is, since the ingestion of alcohol is prohibited in Islam, the chemists found various uses for it, but didn’t drink it (at least in public). It’s primary uses were for medicine, and in making perfumes and makeup. The origin of the word is still not determined fully, but is somewhere between these 2 explanations, where the word “Al” means “The”:

  1. Al Kohool: the makeup, referring to the use of the distillate in the manufacture of eyeliner. The word kohool is the plural of kohol, which means eyeliner. Al Kohool is the current Arabic word for alcohol, and is the most likely explanation.
  2. Al Ghoul: the same word exists in English, ghoul, means monster or spirit, and is similar to how we refer to alcohol as “spirits”. Though it is far removed from the current Arabic word, it is possible that the word had reentered the Arabic vocabulary due to foreign influence, and modified to its current form.

Take your time, and consider these explanations, and try to think of other words that start with “Al”, and there is a possibility they could be Arabic. Don’t come back to me with Al Gore.

So, I hope this has been educational. Tune in next time to discuss “ceviche“!