The sweetest time to be a baker

Bread sales drop during holy month at the Al Saadah Bakery but freshly made pastries draw the crowds before iftar and suhoor.

Al Saada bakeries, Abu Dhabi, August 17, 2010:
Mubarak, an Indian national who has worked at the bakery for 12 years carries a tray of Qtayef from the kitchen to the front of the bakery. 

During the holy month of Ramadan Al Saada bakeries stops production on most pastries-besides bread- that are not Ramadan specific. This has earned then quite the reputation as one of the places to go during the holy month for sweets. The two pastries produced the most during the holy month in this bakery are Qtayef (pronounced Atayef) and Qtayef Asafeeri. 

Lee Hoagland/The National
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ABU DHABI // The facade is ageing and unassuming and, inside, the long, narrow room overflows with platters and serving trays. But the sweet smell of freshly baked goods permeates the space, tantalising the senses. Al Saadah Bakery on Defence Road just may be the perfect place to introduce oneself to Ramadan's sweet rewards.

The shop boasts a stock list of dozens of speciality desserts from both Egypt and the Levant and the delicacies are all made from scratch in the cavernous kitchen at the back. The shop's main offering - freshly baked bread in all its varieties - is placed on the backburner during the holy month. The special desserts that make an appearance only during Ramadan, such as qatayef, are in much higher demand, said Mounir Ayoub, the manager and partner of the bakery.

"Our bread sales fall to less than half the usual in Ramadan, which is normal to all Arab, Muslim countries because, during this month, people are fasting and not eating as much bread," he said. Normally, bread is made all day long, but during Ramadan it is only baked fresh in the few hours before iftar and suhoor. "But that's okay, because God has made it up for us by making this a month where people really crave sweets," said Mr Ayoub.

The shop, open 24 hours a day since it rolled out its first loaf of bread in November 1967, was the first bakery in town to bake and sell the large, thin pita bread known as Lebanese bread. "We really have a following, some of our customers have been coming to us for 30 years to buy their bread, and, in Ramadan, they come twice a day," Mr Ayoub said. They arrive just before iftar to pick up some fresh desserts and any time after midnight, for a late-night snack as part of the suhoor meal.

Despite the high temperatures and the physical toll of fasting, patrons have no qualms about queuing in the bakery to buy signature sweets exclusive to Ramadan. Saeed Abdulaziz, 63, is one of the bakery's regular Emirati customers. He stops by daily, in the hour before iftar, to pick up six to eight pieces of qatayef for his family. "I feel like I should be part owner in this bakery, like I was born here," he said. "As long as they keep making this delicious and fresh qatayef, I will keep coming."

As well as qatayef and their smaller, creamier brethren - qatayef asafeeri - desserts such as znood el sit, knafeh khishneh nabulsiyeh, warbaat and ward el sham only make an appearance in Ramadan, said Khalil al Homsi, the bakery's executive manager. Nevertheless, qatayef is the bakery's bestseller, and customers can even buy the ready-made pancake for the qatayef, or the shredded pastry dough for the knafeh, to make their own versions at home, he said.

Although Mr al Homsi could not say what the bakery's daily qatayef sales are, at least 1,500 are made fresh every day, not counting the special deliveries that go out daily to grocery stores around the capital. "The types of sweets we make can only be enjoyed fresh, so we try not to make more than 40 or 50 pieces over our needed quantity, because we will only be throwing it out. But we are never short. Even if a customer comes in right before dawn and the start of the fast craving one last qatayef, we will have some on hand," he said.

In the hidden kitchen, at least 12 men work on the desserts, and many of them are fasting. Abulbashar Rahim, from Bangladesh, said he was never tempted to break his fast. "Once I hear the call to prayer, it is okay to eat, but before that, this is just work and I do it all year. Where I work does not make my fasting harder," he said. Hani, from Egypt, who works in the main shop serving customers, said that after spending all year surrounded by appetising sweets, one becomes immune, even during Ramadan.

"Those who are fasting crave the sweets more than we do at the bakery, because we have become used to it," he said. That does not mean he does not indulge in a taste after breaking his fast. "Knafeh is my favourite, and of course, all of us here eat a lot of these sweets once our shift is over."