Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ramadan desserts

Del and I are pretty pleased with ourselves for having mostly observed Ramadan this year. We agree it has been much easier to accomplish here, where the entire country is fasting along with you and restaurants close and the law pretty much makes it simpler to fast than not, than it would be in non-Muslim nations where infidel colleagues would be drinking coffee and eating in front of you.

There is a saying here that fasting is the best cook. And it's true that food simply tastes so wonderful after hours without any that it becomes memorable. One friend here consumes carrots every time he eats throughout the year -- trying to recapture the delectable taste of that simple vegetable after his first long fast.
Aside from hunger many of the foods of Ramadan are special, served only at this time of year. Elaborate soups or chorbas anchor every iftar and salads gorgeously arranged like flower decorations with red tomatoes and orange carrots and green lettuce and maroon beets. Burek -- rolled dough fried or baked with meat and vegetable or shrimp stuffings -- are served with the chorbas as are briks -- triangular fried pockets of cheese, egg and meat. Women work slavishly making fresh bread and keeping pots on their stoves bubbling with food to welcome visiting family and friends.
But the crowning glory of the iftar's I've been to are the desserts. Oh la la, as they say here. This may have to do with my own sweet tooth or the craving for sugar that comes after hours with no food, but these Ramadan goodies, mostly built around dates, almond paste, honey and sugar, fruits and sesame are stunning.
The most well-known Kelb el loouz (say kell-bah-loose) a heavy stunningly sweet sheet cake that is sold in giant round or rectangular pans on the streets during Ramadan.
Zlabia (say Zla-BEE-ah) --shown in the middle of the table in the picture above -- are spun strands of fried sugar which give a new meaning to the expression EMPTY CALORIES. The strands are whipped into fanciful shapes. The ones we were served called to mind intestines but Nadir told me a well-known joke here about a Chinese man who befriended an Algerian and the two of them were sharing famous dishes from their country. The Chinese man gave the Algerian moo goo gai pan or something and the Algerian loved it. Then the Algerian gave his Chinese friend Zlabia.
How dare you!? the Chinese man said and he refused to eat the treat.
What do you mean, the bewildered Algerian asked.
How dare you write that to me in food! he replied.
Samsa are rectangular fried pockets of cinnamon and sugar that tasted rather Mexican to me. And in the front of the table above you'll see these lovely nuggets of dates wrapped in semolina and sesame and baked.
The customary gift to bring to an iftar as an invited guest is a little white box tried with a string full of Algerian gateaux, cakes. They are almond paste and nuts mostly but they are made with tremendous artistry. They are shaped into flowers and animals and geometric designs. Patisserie windows are worthy of pictures at this time of year.

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