Amman chef's Arabic cookies rise above mass-produced rivals

'The eye also eats' says Suha Abdulkarim, whose traditional maamoul sweets are a hit among Jordan's foodies

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Jordanian pastry chef Suha Abdulkarim is crushing gold-coloured dates to make a filling for her finely decorated Levantine cookies, called maamoul.

Maamoul is one of few foods in Jordan – a country not usually on the culinary radar of the Middle East – that can hold its own against offerings from Syria and Lebanon, the heavyweights of Arab cuisine.

At her home in Amman, Ms Abdulkarim mixes the crushed dates with – among other things – fennel, anise, ghee, mastic, nutmeg and fenugreek, a herb that resembles clover.

The filling is then shaped into hollow circles and engulfed with dough made from semolina. Before the cookies are finished, delicate patterns are etched on their surface.

Unlike much of the maamoul on the market in Jordan and across the region, Ms Abdulkarim does not use premade date paste. Nor does she use moulds for the decorations – these are engraved by hand, a technique called tanqeesh.

Her dates of choice are Khalas, a variety imported from the Emirates. It was a favourite of Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father.

“Khalas is soft and gives such a nice colour inside the maamoul,” Ms Abdulkarim says.

When she started her business from home a decade ago, Ms Abdulkarim’s maamoul quickly became a local hit.

The market is dominated by mass production but discerning clientele in Amman wanted quality.

But a retreating economy, worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, has hit demand.

Last year, Ms Abdulkarim closed her workshop. It employed a dozen people from impoverished neighbourhoods in east Amman.

She switched to working from home but retained a premises near the Four Seasons Hotel in the western part of the capital.

She sells a kilogram of maamoul for $14, a similar price for some of the mass-produced varieties on sale in Jordan.

"We were affected because so many people since the coronavirus have started cooking businesses from home," she says.

Still, very little of the maamoul sold in Jordan or across the region, receives the attention she gives.

Quote
I have been loving cuisine since I was young. I used to skip studying to go into the kitchen and cook
Suha Abdulkarim

She subscribes to an age-old Levantine cooking mantra: the eye also eats.

“It is a labour of love,” she says.

Her three sons and her sister-in-law are her core maamoul assistants. When she has big orders, she hires temporary help.

Haitham, her eldest, is in the 10th Grade and is "really good at tanqeesh", Ms Abdulkarim says.

When she was growing up, her parents pressured her to study hard, but her focus was cooking.

“I have been loving cuisine since I was young. I used to skip studying to go into the kitchen and cook,” she says.

Maamoul is thought to have originated in Pharaonic Egypt, although some say that, similar to many Arabic sweets, it is Ottoman.

But it has been known for generations among the Bedouins of the Levant and in the Gulf, with dates being a staple of desert regions.

City dwellers eat it especially on religious feasts, Muslim and Christian, but for unknown reasons, not at Christmas.

Urban Levantines modernised maamoul by making it into individual cookies and adding more spices, instead of producing one big, flat piece known as the maamoul madd.

Maamoul can also made with pistachio filling and walnuts, instead of dates.

Ms Abdulkarim buys pistachios that are imported from northern Syria because of the intensity of their green colour. The walnuts come from the US.

Many of her customers think she is of Palestinian origin, because her maamoul is made according to a Palestinian recipe she learnt from her mother.

But her father is from the city of Madaba, south of Amman, and her mother is from Saudi Arabia. Ms Abdulkarim is married to an Iraqi dentist, who fled Iraq to Jordan in the 1990s.

“Customers think I am from Nablus,” Ms Abdulkarim says, referring to the Palestinian capital of sweets.

But a good recipe and ingredients alone are not enough to make delicious maamoul, she says.

“The intention also needs to be good.”

Updated: December 12th 2021, 10:29 AM