Eid-al-Adah is a grand affair in the Kingdom. Usually referred to as the ‘greater’ Eid because it’s centered around sacrifice, it commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his only son as a sign of devotion to Allah. Eating and sharing sweets is an important tradition during this festival. Bahrainis often wash down their desserts with gahwa (Arabic coffee) – rightly so because most Middle Eastern desserts are very sweet. Here are decadent desserts that are most popular with people living in the Kingdom.
No Arab dessert list can be complete without including the jewels of the Middle East i.e. dates! Maamoul is basically a date-filled cookie. Though the date variety is most popular in Bahrain, there are other kinds that use figs and nuts, such as pistachios and walnuts, as fillings. The cookie is made from flour but semolina is also used. Usually made a few days before Eid, it’s then stored to be served with Arabic coffee and chocolate to guests and family. In many homes, it isn’t Eid if the house is not full of the aroma of mastic and spices from the baking maamoul. You can find these ubiquitous sweet discs at any sweetmeat shop in Bahrain. Organised retail outlets also sell packaged varieties of the dessert, which are quite nice. Elevating the humble date, a native fruit of the Middle East, a few packets of this dessert would make for great souvenirs or gifts.
Crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, these dessert dumplings drenched in date syrup are said to have originated in Saudi Arabia but are popular all over the Arab world. Luqaimat, which means ‘bite-sized’ in Arabic, is a humble confectionery item made using store-cupboard essentials like flour, oil, and sugar, but is a treat to say the least. You simply can’t resist popping more than one of these sesame-studded golden fried balls at a go. Visit Emmawash Traditional Restaurant in Budaiya for a good luqaimat. This quirky place with messages from past diners sprawled across walls and a majlis-style seating area serves authentic Bahraini food at down to earth prices. They also have another branch in Hamala.
Layered with filo pastry, drenched in honey and garnished with chopped nuts of all kinds, this sweet delight has been influenced by Greek, Armenian, Turkish, Arab, Persian and a number of other culinary cultures. The Arabs, for instance, introduced rosewater and orange blossom water to the dessert, and the Armenian spice merchants integrated cloves and cinnamon into its recipe. Tariq Pastries in Qudaibiya has been satiating Bahrain’s baklava cravings since 1983. Of course, there are other cafes and restaurants that serve this saccharine dish, but Tariq Pastries has the Kingdom’s vote hands down. You’ll be spoiled for choice with their wide range of baklava. Golden and silver coloured trays of immaculately arranged baklava make for a great gifting idea too.
Umm Ali when translated means ‘Ali’s mother’. It’s originally an Egyptian dessert made with pastry dough, milk, sugar, nuts, and raisins, and is usually eaten warm. You could say it’s an Arabic bread pudding without the eggs. Legend has it that Umm Ali, the wife of the Egyptian Sultan, Izz al-Din Aybak, plotted along with her domestic workers to murder Shajar al-Durr, the Sultan’s second wife. Shajar al-Durr wanted the sole rule of Egypt, which is why she married the Sultan to fulfill the law. When the Sultan refused to oblige, she murdered him and was found guilty but not executed. Umm Ali, the mother of Mansur Ali, made this dish to celebrate the death of Shajar al-Durr. Despite the dark story surrounding this dessert, it’s a pleasure to eat. Sheraton Bahrain’s version of this creamy, comforting creation is a must-try. They serve some great Umm Ali at their Al Safir daily buffet.
This dessert has Levant origins – Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and northern Egypt – but is popular across the Middle East. It’s made by layering a noodle-like pastry or fine semolina dough drenched in a sugar or honey-based syrup with a stringy cheese, often Nabulsi cheese from Palestine – the city of Nablus is renowned for its kanafeh. It’s usually garnished with chopped pistachios and gets its bright orange colour from the food dye used in the pastry. The best place to try this dessert in Bahrain is Kanafawy. Their main store is tucked away in Tubli near Al Samady Coffee Shop. They offer numerous varieties of kanafeh and have other branches too.
Usually flavoured with rosewater and garnished with chopped pistachios, this is a custard type of dish and not as sweet as the rest. Legend has it that mahalabiya or muhallebi was introduced into Arab cuisine in the late 7th century by a Persian cook who served it to an Arab general by the name of al-Muhallab bin Abi Sufra. Saffron by Jena is a great place to try this dessert. The café is immersed in tradition whether you visit the Muharraq or Manama branch. The former has a rustic interior and traditionally dressed servers, offering a great experience dining against a backdrop of Arab-style traditional houses. The latter also offers a local experience with a renovated building having Bahraini architectural elements like woodwork, arches and brick walls, and is tucked away in the souq (market), a cultural paradise.
Said to have been first made in Zanzibar, Tanzania, this gelatinous sweet confection was introduced to the Gulf region by the Omanis, who shared commercial ties with the island. It usually comes in orange, yellow and green, and is garnished with chopped nuts. While a number of restaurants and shops across the Kingdom sell this treat, Halwa Showaiter confectionery is most popular. The Showaiters, a local Bahraini family, have been making this dish for over 150 years now. You could visit one of their shops in Muharraq. The salesmen are friendly and will allow you to taste some before you buy. You can also visit their factory in Muharraq to see how this sweet dish is prepared. The owner is warm and welcoming, typical of Bahrainis, and will be more than willing to offer you a tour.
If you’re a dessert-for-breakfast type of person, try this mini Arab pancake-style dessert flavoured with cardamom and saffron. It’s supposed to be eaten warm and can be enjoyed with honey syrup or plain out of the pan, depending on your preference. It’s very popular in Gulf countries including Bahrain, and is a must-try for Eid and other festive occasions. Most confectionery shops like Showaiter in Muharraq, Halwachi in Sanabis, Manama, and Muharraq, and Al Khulood in Manama sell these treats.