The Sweets of Araby
I really just kind of wanted to share this charming cookbook that happened into my life. It is The Sweets of Araby: Enchanting Recipes from the Tales of the 1001 Arabian Nights, by Leila Salloum Elias and Muna Salloum, who are sisters with academic backgrounds from Canada whose grandparents immigrated there from Syria.
Their mother handed down her traditional customs and recipes (consider this: she would make her own phyllo - dedication), and eventually through a spark of fascination with the wide and yet familiar world of Arabic sweets spanning from cultural centers like Damascus, Baghdad, Fez, Cordoba…the sisters began researching these sweets still enjoyed today that date back hundreds and sometimes thousands of years, and even make appearances in the 1001 Nights.
I just wanted to gush about this book and its layers. It is a cookbook with modernized recipes, but it also includes translations of the recipes they uncovered in medieval Arabic manuscripts. My heart is thumping at this thought. I am on a constant journey through food history, as the stories of the things I make and eat are just as important as their taste. This has been my quest ever since high school, when I would use the thin dollars from my retail/concessions/collating(it was a thing) jobs to buy cookbooks. Eventually the cookbooks became chocolate books…and here we are now.
But back to the lovely Sweets of Araby. It is thoroughly researched, but also joyful like a children’s book - it’s illustrated with verve by Linda Dala Sawaya. And it weaves the recipes into the select stories from 1001 Nights, retold warmly by the sisters. (Note: the story of the Luqum al-Qadi and the Porter had me cracking up - I could only imagine creating a sweet so alluring that it would lead someone to forego delicious sex for it :0 )
I guess sometimes you just want to get down to the “meat and potatoes” of the recipes in a cookbook. But this one elevates the experience into something beautiful, bringing literature, history, and personal touch all together, just like the recipes of these Arabic delicacies that the Salloum sisters present to us, and finding a form that mimics the charm and intricacy of the sweets (and stories) themselves.
And reading the book I think of my friend Horaa. We met through Lincoln Literacy when I was a volunteer English tutor in 2010, before I left for Bordeaux. Horaa was from Damascus and had moved here for her husband’s work. I remember her sharing her stories of Arabic sweets with me, and once she came back from a trip to Chicago with a box of a kind of cotton candy sweet. I always think of the time she described one particular sweet to me - believe it was the zulabiyah (it seems like it from the description in this book). She was disturbed to have finally found out the amount of calories in one of these confections. Now when I see these fried sugary nests I think of the look on her face at that moment.
I remember Horaa’s description of Damascus from before she immigrated. The men bringing oil and water to the houses, the electricity cutting our regularly. She also spoke of the diversity of the people there - traditional, Westernized, of all different faiths, and she missed them - she missed there being people around, period. Then it was a bustling, hustling city, with vendors that had fruit and vegetables with true flavor. Here life can seem flat, plain, flavorless. I too become depressed at the steady pressure for pre-packaged, mass-produced, chemically-sustained foodstuffs that block our view of delicious, locally-grown, homemade possibilities.
I think of my great-grandmothers who immigrated from Poland about 100 years ago. I think of their hands that worked flour into pierogi and breads to feed the Polish community that had gathered together on a hilltop in Sioux City. The poppyseed, rye, cream cheese, butter, dill, pickles, cabbage, sausage. The foods they would eventually be able to make in abundance after they had suffered paucity in the old country. The foods that no one seems to keep anymore.
But I’m bring dramatic. They are there if you make them. If you seek. If you demand. If you keep telling the story so that others can createt