Um Ali and Damascus

Revenge is best served cold…but if you are an Egyptian Princess from the Fatimy Dynasty, then it is warm, silky and sweet….

It is said that Um Ali is a dessert that dates back to the Fatimy Dynasty in Egypt, and that this dish is what sweet revenge tastes like.  First made by Um Ali after killing Shajart Al Dur, the dish has also been known as Halawet El Dam, or sweetness of blood in Egypt.  The dish mixes bread (or croissant) or any type of thick dough with milk, butter, sugar and an assortment of spices, nuts and dried fruits, and it holds a light almost golden color that is definitely far from red blood.

My first time tasting Um Ali was in Damascus, October 2010.  It was my first time in Syria as well. I travelled through the Jiser (also known as the Allenby Bridge), the only way out of the West Bank, through Jordan, and by land to Damascus.  The trip was tedious to say the least. The humiliation of Jiser never changes, the long ride to the Jordanian-Syrian border, and then the several hour delay (two hours if I recall) was a far cry from the beauty that awaited me in Damascus.

Damascus is beautiful, period.  It is almost as if you are continuously traveling through time, moving into the mystical Omayyed period and back to the modern hustle and bustle of the present. Out of my hotel window, we stayed at the lavish and luxurious Four Season’s Hotel, stood the Omayyad Mosque, proud and austere; a live testimony of the beautiful Bilad Al Sham, the cradle of many civilizations, and just five minutes away, you could get easily lost in the labyrinth of Souq Al Hameediyyeh. 

The two day trip wore me down, but the love, hospitality, and incredible cuisine that greeted me the following morning, soothed my whip lashed headache.  See, Palestinians have a complicated relationship with their neighboring countries.  Most of whom, fled Palestine in 1948 and again in 1967 live to this day in refugee camps peppered through Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Never fully assimilated into the country they sought refuge in; their paper work never fully normalized, Palestinian refugees remain trapped in time, neither home nor every made to feel at home.  And for those of us who still live in Palestine namely the West Bank, the relationship is even far more complicated and complex, filled with political calculations of peace treaties, Oslo accords, acceptance of the Palestinian Authority, support for armed resistance and much more. A more difficult equation than the genetic algorithms I used in my PhD. 

But away from politics and political leaders, I was received with unwavering love and warmth  from my fellow Syrian colleagues and friends. To them I came from the land of honey, and olive oil, the land of sumood and resistance, and their hospitality was heart warming. 

On my first morning, I managed to pull myself out of bed and drag my heavy headache down for breakfast, and there I met Um Ali for the first time, bread soaked with sweet milk and butter, crunchy yet tender.   Like my friends, Um Ali greeted me with folds of tenderness, and layers of taste that engulfed my mouth and traveled warmly down my throat.  

Everything else about Damascus was like that first bite of Um Ali, layered with history, smells of spices, amazing stories and best of all  incredible hospitality.  I still regret not buying that handmade table cloth from Sooq El Hameediyyeh, with its elegantly matching napkins. Little did I know at the time that I would get married in a year’s time and would find myself wishing for it at every dinner table, especially as Syria hastily spiraled into war soon after I was there and the prospects of me, the Palestinian visiting it again, are next to none. 

Less than a year later the Syrian revolution began, and I watched how quickly the situation deteriorated, how fast Syria fell under the claws of so many who clearly were waiting for her to fall, like a beautiful doe surrounded by hungry wolves; she seemed trapped in an eternal fight for her life.  

The brutality from the inside out and the outside in, the loss of human lives, and the bloody stories that came out of Syria were a jarring contrast to the beauty, history and elegance that greeted me in Damascus, and the love and warmth that engulfed me.   Often as I listened to news from Syria, my mind would wander back to that first morning and that first bite of Um Ali and a dehumanizing feeling of helplessness would wash over me. 

Syrians are the best cooks in the Middle East.  Their food touches you deep down in the folds of your soul.  And while many of their dishes are common place to other middle eastern tables, their tabbouleh seems to taste better, their kibbeh is crunchy on the outside soft on the inside and it is never overcooked, or undercooked.  One dish in particular that had me spinning around my own self in pleasure is the Aleppo Kabab with cherry molasses.  The combination of sweet and meat is simply a stroke of genius. 

Damascus streets are lined with all kinds of restaurants, the authentic Syrian,  the modern fusion,  and the Italian pasta and pizzeria place.  Syrians could take any dish from anywhere in the world and bring it to life, as if literally blowing spirit and soul into it.  I had the best Pizza of my life in Damascus. So it comes at no surprise to me  that  they would take Um Ali and prepare it even better than anywhere else in the Middle East. 

 Um Ali is a dish that came out of  revenge and blood.  A first wife’s (Um Ali’s) loyalty to her husband, the sultan, and her attempt to save him from his second wife (Queen Shajarat El Dur) plotting his murder.

The irony that a dish of revenge and blood would taste so sweet and warm is inescapable.  The irony that my first contact with such sweetness and warmth came in Damascus is especially painful now, and leaves me only praying that warmth and peace will wrap its fragile hands around  Syria soon. 

Ingredients

(recipe adapted from Manal Al Alem, video link below)

4 Egg Yolks

6 cups milk

120 g butter

1 1/3 cup sugar

1 Tbsp Vanilla

10 croissants/ or 10 large puff pastries baked

1/3 Cup sliced Walnuts

1/3 Cup Coconut flakes

1/3 Cup almonds

1/3 Cup rasins

1 Tbsp Cinnamon

1/4 tsp cloves

1/4 tsp nutmeg (optional)

1 cup whipped cream

2 Tbsp Honey

Zest of one lemon

1 tbsp of rose water

1tsp of orange blossom water

To Make Um Ali

  1. Bake your puff pastry then cut into pieces and place into your over safe dish.  I like to use my Fokhara for this, don’t hesitate if you have one.  
  2. Add the milk, the butter and the sugar into a heavy sauce pan.  Slowly simmer on a medium to low heat, stirring regularly.  Separate your eggs and beat the egg yolks.  Once the milk and butter are warm enough, temper your eggs by adding a few small ladles of the warm mixture to the eggs and beating them. Do not add too much milk, because this will cook your eggs too quickly.  
  3. Add the egg yolks mixture to the milk and stir until the mixture slightly thickens.  Turn off the heat.
  4. In an oven safe container, add the puffed pastries (brake into medium sizes), the fruits, the nuts and spices along with the coconut shavings. Pour the custard mixture on top and let stand while you make the whipped cream.
  5. Whip the cream with honey and lemon zest until it gives you stiff peaks.  You can load into a piping bag and pipe it on top of the mixture or you can simple spoon it and spread it even on top.
  6. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until the mixture starts to bubble and the cream starts to turn gold in color. Take out of the oven, allow it to cool for 5-10 minutes then serve.

 

 

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