The Syrians have a saying which goes: "Fiy ma'adaty khalwah la yamluha illa al-halwah." It means, "There is an empty place in my stomach which only sweets can fill," but it really isn't true. The Syrians don't stop eating sweets long enough for an empty place to develop. And who, having once sampled the flaky, sticky, nut-filled delights of a Syrian candy shop, could blame them?
Middle East sweets are special, as any Syrian will be pleased to tell you. "Our sweets need a special stomach," admits Shafiq Sama'an, the proprietor of a sweet shop on Marjeh Square in Damascus. "But if you have that stomach—Ahh Damascus!"
Ahh, indeed. Although all Middle East countries have their specialties and although it was Turkey that originated the extravagantly sweet specialties of the Middle East, Damascus is the place where the art of such baking has been raised almost to perfection. There are famous ice cream parlors. There are shops that specialize in candied fruit. And there are at least 20 oriental pastry shops, one of which is run by Mr. Sama'an.
Mr. Sama'an's shop is small, clean and tiled in white. Two walls are lined with stacks of two- and four-kilo cardboard cartons and sturdier wooden containers for foreign travelers. The radio wails oriental music above the pulsing hum of the overhead fan. Before the window is the long counter with its pan balance (sweets sell for roughly 7 U.S. cents per pound), a graceful phial of rosewater, and round brass tray warmers with hissing blue gas flames beneath. And dominating both the counter and the room are the rows of broad, shallow trays heaped with golden glazed sweets of every variety, the mounds of pastry within them arranged in abstract geometric patterns or carefully stacked into sculptured towers, pyramids and cones.
Although the varieties are innumerable, Mr. Sama'an explains, basically the sweets fall into three families: baklawa, made up of 12 paper-thin layers of flaky crust; Jatayir, with only two sandwiched layers of the same flour, sugar and egg batter; and kanafe, which resembles shredded wheat. These three types and their numerous variations are all deep-fried until brown in a heavy sheep-fat butter called semni. There is also a fourth type that is baked in an oven, like a western biscuit or cookie.
Baklawa proper is no more than flaky crusted pastry filled with ground-up green pistachios and soaked in sugar syrup. Cut in smaller round pieces like tiny roses, the same sweet is called kul washkur or "eat and thank." Cut in triangular shapes which curl up at the points to resemble blossoms, the pastry is called wardat (flowers). Filled with sweet cream it becomes nammoura or "delicious"; in thin rolls filled with pine nuts and decorated with lightly-sprinkled pistachio it goes by the name assabia' issit, meaning "lady's fingers."
In a basement just around the corner from their Marjeh Square shop is the Assadieh and Sama'an bakery. All day and most of the night, amid tantalizing odors, about 15 men bustle from kitchen to oven to storeroom to shop with heavy trays of sweets and their rich ingredients in every stage of preparation. Though the cellar is cluttered, hot, and dimly lit, the working surfaces—white marble again—are as clean as surf-polished rock. A rack on the wall is hung with rolling pins of every weight, size and length. Rolling out the paper-thin crusts (called "papers" in fact) is an art which resembles sleight of hand.
The process begins with a stack of what look like 12 ordinary pie crusts. While they are still on top of one another the circles are rolled out flat until they measure about a foot and a half across. As the cook works, the excess flour is forced out from between the layers in little puffs around the edges. He then chooses a longer rolling pin from the rack and magically picks off the top layer by rolling it around the pin. Slapping the fragile dough on the marble surface, he peels off the layers one by one and wraps them around the stick. When the circles have all been transferred onto the pin he unrolls them again, one at a time, onto a new stack. Over and over he wraps the thin sheets like a bolt of fine cloth and redeposits them on the stack until they are as broad as the top of a card table. Individually they are nearly transparent and the entire stack is now as thin as one original crust. After he has slapped them down carelessly a final time, he folds over the edges of the big circle to form a slightly smaller square, reinforcing the center with extra pastry. Then, starting at one edge, he draws a thick line of chopped nuts, folds the crusts over a few inches, and with machine gun cadence, cuts up the filled roll with a metal cookie cutter and shoots the individual pieces down the counter to be arranged in the trays. Then he puts down a new line of nuts and folds over a new row.
If only one or two layers of the "paper" are used, the result is fatayir. Filled with meat, sweet or sour cream, or with sweet or salted cheese, these pastries rise like fragile bubbles as they cook. They are served only in the morning, with sugar, syrup and powdered sugar, and it is common in Assadieh and Sama'an's to see a workman or a businessman enjoying a filling breakfast of one dairy pastry and one of meat.
Kanafe starts as a thin mixture of flour and water. This is dipped up in a brass strainer and rains out of it in a thin shower as it is swirled over an immense copper grill in a decreasing spiral. As the batter touches the hot metal it crackles and crinkles into long threads which almost immediately shrivel and squeeze themselves in toward the center as they flash dry. They are scooped up in crisp bundles which resemble loops of yarn. Later these wisps of pastry are spread out in layers to be filled like baklawa with cheese (mornings only) or cream (only in the winter). The most common form taken by kanafe, however, is a long twisted roll filled with nuts and simmered in butter, called pistachio twist (mabruma bil fistuq). The long curved twists make the most towering and spectacular displays in the shop.
Among the cookies there are akras biajwy, round with dates; ajwa or "writing," simply a cookie with cuneiform-type markings; and ma'moul bil fistuq, called "doing it with pistachio." Wariyeba is a crescent-shaped ring with one pistachio nut where the two horns meet. Though now sold throughout the year, it was traditionally eaten during Sha'ban, the month preceding the holy month of Ramadan. "It is the door of Ramadan and it lets us feel it is coming," Mr. Sama'an explains.
During Ramadan itself, the traditional cookie is baraziq. As recently as 15 years ago, according to Mr. Sama'an, it was eaten at no other time. Baraziq is a delicious cookie, crisp and flat and covered with oven-browned sesame seeds. At Ramadan baraziq is still sold in large quantities, while the total consumption of sweets in general doubles. Syrian Christians, too, have their traditional day for sweets: St. Barbara's Day, December 4. Formerly, Mr. Sama'an says, they ate only sweets prepared without butter on this holy day, but that custom has faded and baraziq, the sesame seed specialty of the Muslims, is now one of their favorites as well.
Mr. Sama'an is a generous man who knows his business well. When a box has been filled and weighed for a customer, he always offers an extra sweet to be eaten on the spot. When a foreign tourist enters the shop and has a hard time choosing, he offers a sample to hone the appetite. And what about him? Isn't he tempted to nibble at his wares all day?
"Not here in the shop," he replies. "I'm much too busy. But I usually take something home for my children and once I'm there ... well, I'm just like all Syrians. No matter how much good food my wife has prepared for dinner, there always seems to be that empty place in my stomach that nothing else will fill."
William Tracy is the Assistant Editor of Aramco World.