Baklava, halwa, kunafa, umm alli and more must-try traditional desserts
Time Out Bahrain staff
Bahraini sweets are fantastic at any time of year but during Eid al-Fitr, or Eid al-Adha, a batch of your favourite local delights makes the perfect gift. With this in mind, we scoured the country for Bahrain’s best interpretations of regional desserts and this is what we found…
Baklava What is it? Just as the Gulf has inherited biryani from India, and Vimto from the Brits, baklava is a Turkish import which has been wholeheartedly embraced. This rich, sweet pastry is made using layers of filo pastry, which are filled with chopped nuts (typically pistachios or walnuts) and held together with sticky honey or a syrup flavoured with rose water or orange blossom. It’s then served at room temperature, and garnished with sprinklings of ground nuts.
Where can I find it? Baklava isn’t hard to find in Bahrain but if you want what many would cite as ‘the best’ then you’d better head over to Tariq Pastries (they even have versions dipped in chocolate, or one for diabetics!). This famous bakery has six branches across the island in Muharraq, Gudaibiya (main branch), Budaiya, Jid Ali, Hamad Town and Riffa. Visit www.tariqpastries.com or call 1727 0182.
Halwa What is it? The Arabic word halwa, or halva, has sweet connotations and this dessert is well known throughout Asia, Africa and parts of Europe. But no one makes it quite like Bahrain does, hence why here we enjoy ‘Halwa Bahraini’, which was originally created by the notable Showaiter family. In fact, it’s so famous that people come from across the region to pick up a batch.
Where halva is typically made with semolina or types of grain flour, halwa Bahraini uses corn flour and there are a few varieties to choose from – red, green and golden, to name some. The most popular red version is mixed up with nuts (pistachios, almonds, walnuts), spices (cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron) and rose water, plus plenty of sugar, to create a seriously flavourful, jelly-like sweet treat.
Where can I find it? The source, of course! Head out to any of Bahrain’s multiple ‘Showaiter’ shops, or to the factory itself. The factory is based in Muharraq. Call 1734 5550.
Kunafa What is it? You just can’t talk about desserts of the Arab World without mentioning kunafa – the Middle Eastern version of a cheesecake. Kunafa is originally a specialty of the Levant – Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and northern Egypt – but is popular across the entire region. The base is a stringy, stretchy cheese akin to mozzarella (often Nabulsi cheese from Palestine; the city of Nablus is renowned for its kunafa), which is then rolled in pastry or shredded phyllo dough, and topped with sugar- or honey-syrup. There are numerous ways to create this dish, but each variety brings something unique, and utterly delicious, to the table.
Where can I find it? There’s one place to head to for kunafa in Bahrain and that’s Kanafawy. This local chain offers numerous varieties at their stores or for home delivery (you can order via Talabat). The main store is in Manama, near Al Samady Coffee Shop. Call 1776 0940.
Luqaymat What is it? These little fried dough balls are perfect for any discerning sweet tooth. Also known as luqmat al-kadhi, or ‘Zainab Fingers’, they’re crispy on the outside, soft and squidgy on the inside and drenched in honey or sugar syrup, which is sometimes flavoured with saffron or cardamom. They’re then often rolled in toasted sesame seeds for extra crunch. We couldn’t tell you where they originated from but we can tell you we’re glad they exist, and you will be too.
Where can I find it? We love to pop over to our favourite Budaiya-based Bahraini restaurant, Emma-Wash, for a spot of Luqaymat and a cup of karak. Call 1730 9030.
Ma’amoul What is it? All year round, ma’amouls are a common sight in Khaleeji and Levantine kitchens but during the Ramadan nights, and particularly through Eid, celebrants can’t get enough. The little shortbread pastries are great as a sweet and savoury pick-me-up snack, as they’re typically stuffed with dates and walnuts or pistachios. Perfect for enjoying with friends over a pot of tea or Arabic coffee.
Where can I find it? It’s time to head back to Tariq Pastries to pick up one of their famous ma’amoul platters. Visit www.tariqpastries.com or call 1727 0182.
Qatayef What is it? This little stuffed mini pancake is rarely absent from iftar tables and Eid celebrations throughout the region. Traditionally, street vendors in the Levant and Egypt prepared qatayef but now the rest of the Middle East has adopted the creation. The qatayef batter is typically fashioned into a pancake, folded into a half moon, and then filled with unsalted cheese or a mixture of nuts, raisins, sugar and spices, or even fruits. It’s then deep fried and served with syrup, and enjoyed as a sweet snack.
Where can I find it? Ask someone from the Levant and chances are they’ll tell you to find their home country’s delicacies at notable bakery Saadeddin. It’s a popular choice for all sorts of sweet pastries, and particularly qatayef. They have numerous locations including Hoora, Jid Ali, Busaiteen, Sanad and Bokawara. Call 1729 5143.
Rangeena What is it? Rangeena is a simple yet famous Middle Eastern dessert made with dates, flour, walnuts and flavourful spices (such as cardamom, nutmeg or cinnamon) and it pairs perfectly with a cup of Arabic coffee, to be enjoyed while catching up with friends. There isn’t much information available about the origin of this dessert but it’s enjoyed in its various forms, and under different names, from Iran to Iraq, Saudi Arabia to right here in Bahrain.
Where can I find it? One popular place for a spot of Rangeena is Roche Café in Adliya. You can enjoy a bowl of their special Rangeena in the café or pop across the road to order it from their shop for deliveries and take aways. Call 1771 0200.
Umm Ali What is it? Umm Ali is arguably the Middle East’s most famous dessert. In a nutshell, it’s an Egyptian version of bread pudding made of puff pastry, condensed milk, cream, nuts, sultanas and shredded coconut. Its origins are less definable, however, as there are numerous legends surrounding its birth. The one we like best is of a Sultan who got a little peckish during a hunting trip, stopped off at a nearby village and had the locals call upon their best cook to whip him up something sweet. The cook? Why Umm Ali of course (which in Arabic means ‘mother of Ali’).
Where can I find it? Head back to popular bakery Saadeddin for some of the island’s best umm ali (call 1729 5143). If you’re eating out at one of the many iftars, ghabgas or Eid events this month then you’ll find plenty of it at every dessert station.
Zahlabiya What is it? Yet another international dessert import is this chewy, pretzel-shaped sugar biscuit called Zahlabiya, otherwise known as Jalebi in India. It’s a little dated in the culinary world right now, and it’s so sweet it makes your teeth hurt, but it’s also definitely one of the most recognisable desserts on the market. The bite-sized treat is made by deep frying flour batter in various funky shapes and then it’s left to soak in sugar syrup (sometimes flavoured with rose water). These can be served warm or cold.
Where can I find it? Pretty much everywhere! They’re particularly popular in the depths of the Manama souq, at various local vendors. You can’t miss them!
Mahalabiya recipe Here’s one you can make at home, courtesy of The Gulf Hotel’s executive pastry chef Nadi Mounir.
Serves six Ingredients 1 litre full cream milk 150g sugar 60g cornstarch 1 vanilla bean 5ml rose water 10g pistachio slices 10g almond slices
Method Combine milk, sugar, vanilla beans and rose water together in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
Whisk some of the milk (70ml) with cornstarch in a bowl until smooth, then stir into the boiling milk.
Cook the milk mixture over a medium heat until thickened to the consistency of cake batter (about five minutes). Remove pan from the heat.
Refrigerate the milk mixture until completely cooled, around two to four hours.
Sprinkle the sliced almonds and pistachio on top and serve. You can also enjoy this version of malahabiya in The Gulf Hotel’s iftar buffet or on Zahle’s a la carte menu (BD2.9++).