Traditional Ramadan drink jallab has customers returning by the bottleful

Nostalgia surrounds beverage made from syrup of rose water and date molasses

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As the sun drops behind the tall apartment blocks that line Badr Demachkieh in west Beirut, a steady stream of vehicles pull up outside the bakeries and drink shops dotted along the busy road.

Customers run in to grab cakes and refreshments to break their Ramadan fast at iftar later that day, before rushing off home as darkness begins to fall.

At roadside drinks kiosk Juicy Frutti, six large tubs churn the different drinks to keep them fresh, including jallab, a popular Ramadan refreshment in countries including Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan.

Owner Sleiman Al Ali reaches for one of the many empty water bottles in a bag below the drinks before filling it with the dark, sweet drink that is largely made by diluting a syrup of rose water and date molasses and often topped with ice, pine nuts and raisins.

“Here we have pistachios, pine nuts, cashews. You have these with jallab,” said Mr Ali, as his colleague Omar El Haj packs an order for a customer.

The customers are always there, Mr Ali says, even if the devastating economic crisis that has struck Lebanon hit demand.

“People are finding the current situation difficult," said Mr Ali. "Before, they might have taken two or three bottles. Now, they’re only taking a bottle here and there.

“Sometimes there are customers, sometimes there aren’t. But during Ramadan, they’re always here.”

Omar El Haj fills a bottle with jallab. Finbar Anderson / The National

And while jallab is in demand, there’s more on offer. “Licorice is particularly popular to have after iftar … it’s great as a thirst-quencher,” said Mr El Haj.

It is believed that bottled jallab syrup – for preparation at home – was first introduced in the 1980s by drinks manufacturer Kassatly Chtaura and its founder, Akram Kassatly.

The decision was sparked by his clients in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, who had asked if he could create a bottled concentrate jallab drink. Akram Kassatly sought out one of the most famous sellers of jallab in the markets of Beirut to learn his recipe.

“At the same time, in the 1980s, advertisements started,” said Nayef Kassatly, general manager of Kassatly Chtaura and son of Akram, referring to a famous Lebanese commercial that marketed jallab.

“We created a beautiful movie … a very nice song, all about the fantasy world of jallab that comes around it, during Ramadan, during summer and so on. That was really the turning point of Kassatly Chtaura. Jallab was the pillar of the success of our company. One thing led to another and today we are in all types of beverages.”

“Our essence and our DNA comes from how my father turned a famous beverage that everybody drinks on the streets into a concentrated version that you can find on the shelves.”

He also believes that the strong advertising by Kassatly Chtaura during Lebanon’s civil war helped.

“We were advertising heavily on [the] news. Everybody was in shelters watching TV, seeing the jallab commercial,” he said.

Mr Kassatly believes, although it was not his generation, the “fantasy” of jallab created nostalgia for the pre-war days where hawkers would sell the drink on the streets. “It’s like grabbing the past. This is why this fantasy was created around it.”

Vats of jallab and other juices at the entrance to Beirut's Juicy Frutti shop, where customer numbers increase during Ramadan. Photo: Finbar Anderson / The National

But “habits changed”, Mr Kassatly said, as fruit juices grew in popularity and jallab became more of a seasonal drink.

“When I was young, my mum used to dilute a jallab bottle, put it in the freezer, soak some pine seeds and dry raisins," he said. "She used to crush them, put them in a glass and call us from the pool – ‘guys, come refresh yourselves’. But that was the old times. With time, fruit juices came in.”

He believes that, because of the current economic crisis in Lebanon and decrease in purchasing power, jallab has become a luxury.

"It was like the bread on the table during Ramadan. Ramadan without jallab doesn't exist - didn't exist. Today it does."

Updated: April 22, 2022, 6:00 PM
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