EDIBLE TRADITIONS: O COOKIE BELOVED

cookies

A maamoul love story

BY MAYA PARSON
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID JOHNSON

In her outstanding cookbook and food history Recipes and Remembrances from an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen, Sonia Uvezian describes maamoul, shortbread cookies stuffed with dates or nuts, as the Middle Eastern equivalent of Marcel Proust’s beloved madeleine: the cookie that eaten years later stirred up long-forgotten memories of self and place.

I first tasted maamoul 20 years ago when I lived in a town fortunate enough to have a Lebanese bakery. At the aptly named Sweet Oasis, the maamoul were crumbly, rich and enormous—the width of a saucer and an inch and a half tall. The filling was sticky and sweet, the crust tender and buttery. I ate them as often as my college-student budget would allow.

I could relate to Uvezian’s sentiment when, almost two decades later, I found maamoul again—unexpectedly— in Michiana. The beloved cookies were at Almadina Market, a small grocery located at 4213 Grape Road in Mishawaka, that specializes in Muslim foods.

The imported Saudi maamoul sold at Almadina are not homemade, but one bite quickly transported me back 20 years to the time when my future husband and I would feast on crispy falafel and fresh pita, then grab a couple of maamoul to sneak with us into the local art house theater.

Maamoul (which means “filled” in Arabic) are traditional across the Middle East and in parts of North Africa, from Syria to Sudan. According to Middle Eastern food expert Nawal Nasrallah, cookies similar to today’s maamoul can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia, a region that included modern-day Iraq and parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran.

Almadina Market owner Heba Said, who is originally from Sudan, told me that in her country, as in Lebanon and elsewhere, Muslims eat maamoul at the end of Ramadan, a holy month of fasting that commemorates the revelation of the Koran to Muhammad.

When Ramadan ends, Muslims celebrate with two or three days of feasting known as Eid al-Fitr (“the feast of the breaking of the fast”). Maamoul are a popular Eid treat for families to make or purchase. Maamoul are also eaten in Sudan, according to Said, in celebration of a wedding or the arrival of new baby. “It is better,” Said explains, “to make cookies [for a new mother] than to go to the store and buy a baby toy. It is more valuable.”

Maamoul are also traditional to Christians in the Middle East. At Eastertime, the cookies are sometimes shaped and decorated to symbolize aspects of the crucifixion, such as the cross, the crown of thorns, or the stones thrown at Jesus. Helen Elia, the owner of Elia’s Mediterranean Cuisine in South Bend, makes maamoul at home for Easter and occasionally to sell in her restaurant (2128 South Bend Avenue), along with other Lebanese sweets like baklava and nammoura (a cake made of semolina or farina).

Maamoul are also traditional to Sephardic Jews in parts of North Africa and the Middle East. The cookies, sometimes known as “menena,” are eaten for the Purim holiday and occasionally for Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah. Cookbook author Claudia Roden includes a recipe for maamoul in her encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Food.

molds

MAKING MAAMOUL

After several visits to Almadina Market to buy maamoul and other goodies (spiced yogurt cheese! fresh whole-wheat pita!), I spied an item that initiated a new stage in my relationship with maamoul: a tabbeh, a beautifully carved wooden mold for making maamoul at home. It was like a piece of folk art and a kitchen tool all in one. I had to have one, even though I didn’t know the first thing about making maamoul.

Finding a standard recipe was not as simple as I had anticipated. There are as many different ways to make maamoul as there are spellings of the word—ma’mul, ma’amoul and mamoul—or peoples that eat them. Recipes usually reflect local tradition and are passed from one generation to the next or from one neighbor to another.

Heba Said learned how to make maamoul from her mother in Sudan and makes her own version here at home in Michiana for special occasions. Making maamoul, she says, is a communal and celebratory activity—a joyful way of remembering the past and keeping cultural identity alive. When I asked Said what maamoul mean for her, she smiled and said, “They are about our culture. About happiness.”

RECIPE

MAAMOUL COOKIES

Maya Parson is a recent transplant to Michiana and convert to the joys of eating local pastured meats and farm-fresh milk and eggs. A cultural anthropologist and home cook, she has enjoyed living and eating in Northern California, the Pacific Northwest, the Basque country, Nicaragua, North Carolina and on Long Island. She can be found most Saturday mornings at the Goshen Farmers Market.

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