Sweetmeats. When I first encountered the word, images of my Grandmother’s congealed meatloaf sprang to mind. Somehow “meat” and “sweet” did not go together and I was shocked that “sweetmeats” were considered delicacies by the European travellers who wrote the narratives we’ve talked about on this blog. While my naivety caused me initial confusion, it made me look up what they were. It turns out, quite obvious to everyone else but moi, that sweetmeats do not contain meat. Instead they are a luxurious treat usually made with various kinds of nuts, dates, sugar, and sometimes fruit. I soon discovered that sweetmeats are much more than just a treat. They are a delicacy with an ancient past, and have the ability to cross religious and geographical borders. A delicacy that is enjoyed by all throughout the Middle East.
Returning to Lane-Poole’s 19th century narrative, luscious sweetmeats were enjoyed at the end of the day by women inside the confines of the harem. However, these small delicacies have been consumed since as early as the tenth century. The enjoyment of sweetmeats has been documented at an array of events, from unexpected visits to funerals, weddings, a circumcision, and at many Muslim festivals. Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World by Lilia Zaouali, writes about the early recipes, which were carefully guarded by Middle Eastern confectioners. However, these treats are made in the home as well, and a similar pride causes wives and mothers to keep secret their method of achieving a certain taste or texture. For those who are pressured to divulge their secret recipes, they may re-write it, but with a hidden mistake. I wonder if the expression “made with love” was a way to explain the variation in the sweetmeats, in which one must have a certain kind of mysterious “love” ingredient. Probably not, but it’s fun to entertain.
We attempted to put some love and deliciousness into our recreation of two sweetmeat recipes found in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden. Our techniques may not have impressed the mothers of the 10th century, but we sought to put some sweet, sweet history into our bellies.
Orass bi Loz.
Makes 22-24 balls
2 cups of ground almonds
1 cup superfine sugar
1 or 2 drops of almond extract
About 3 tablespoons of rose or orange-blossom water
12 blanched almonds or pistachio nuts to garnish
Confectioners’ sugar to roll the ball in at the end
Living in Vancouver, Canada, we are blessed with a multicultural living space. My favourite grocery store is called Persia Foods. Where else could we find rose and orange-blossom water, and soft, juicy dates? After we assembled our ingredients we realized that we did not have a blender to grind the almonds. Instead we took a hammer out of the tool-box and bashed away. 10th century wives didn’t have a blender, so we figured this was in true sweetmeat-making style. Then we began kneading the mixture using our hands. After about ten minutes of mixing, we realized that in trying to halve the recipe, we mixed up some of the measurements. Adjustments had to be made. Once the perfect texture was achieved we rolled and garnished each ball with pistachios.
Tamr bi Loz
Makes about 50
1 ½ cups of ground almonds or pistachios
½ cup superfine sugar
2-3 tablespoons rose water or orange blossom water
1 pound dried dates (the soft California or Tunisian ones)
Since we used rose water to flavour the Orass bi Loz, we decided to use orange blossom water for Tamr bi Loz. Our result was less than perfection, but beauty was not our end goal. In making these simple, yet delicious delicacies I was reminded of how food conveys experience. These little balls of goodness have been made for centuries. The simplicity of ingredients allowed me to imagine how each family had their own variation. In our experience with reading the historical travel narratives, cooking with the Syrians, and dining at Tamam, it has become apparent that when making food, instinct rather than recipes are relied upon. How something feels in your hands is the way to measure. To me, this is like an imprint or a gene that is carried throughout a lineage. Which is bittersweet, because it can never truly be captured in a recipe.