A Daughter Bakes A New Connection With Family During Ramadan

Eslah Attar for NPR

A mix of traditional and nontraditional Arabic desserts served with Turkish coffee.

Warak enab, a dish of grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat, has always been a favorite Middle Eastern dish of mine.

Growing up, I would sit with my mother at the dining room table as she taught me the technique — down to the detail of where to place my fingersfor wrapping the perfect warak enab.

When I moved out of my childhood home, Mama would send me stacks of grape leaves, rolled into a burrito-like form, picked straight from the vines we grew in our backyard. I was on my own, but there was always comfort in being able to call or FaceTime her as I cooked.

Through FaceTime, Mama walked me through many of her recipes: mjaddarah, a Lebanese lentil dish topped with caramelized onions, her vermicelli rice and leban, yogurt. After much trial and error, I perfected many of her complicated Middle Eastern dishes. I even felt confident in my grape leaf-wrapping skills.

But I never quite mastered traditional Middle Eastern desserts. Baklava, knafeh, a pastry made of thin noodles, stuffed with cheese and soaked in syrup, and maamoul, a date-filled pastry topped with pistachio, required patience, time and skill I had yet to learn.

I had never even attempted to bake with Mama. I just knew it would be too complicated, mostly because she rarely sticks to set measurements. It’s as if she throws her ingredients into the air and a decadent, cheesy slice of knafeh magically appears in front of her.

This summer I was supposed to move from Washington, D.C., to New York to start a new job — but the coronavirus crisis postponed those plans. And so, I decided to move back into my parents’ home.

Initially, I was disappointed, but I recognized the rare opportunity I had to reconnect with my parents as an adult, especially during Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month, which began on April 23 this year.

One important aspect of Ramadan is the communal iftar dinners, where we break our fast together. No matter how much we eat, there’s always room for knafeh.

Desserts are a big part of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, the three-day celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. For my family, the sweet smell of knafeh and maamoul baking in the kitchen signifies the end of this special month. This year, Eid begins on the evening of May 23.

A couple of weeks ago, Mama and I were rearranging boxes of stuff I’d brought home, and we came across one of her old recipe books in the basement.

She had brought it with her from Syria when she moved to the U.S. at age 24, right after she got married. She told me this book taught her almost everything she knew about cooking and baking — with occasional phone calls to her mother in Syria for assistance.

Moving back in has given me full access to Mama’s world — her spices, her recipe books and the chaos that her kitchen turns into every time we cook or bake.

It also has given me access directly to Mama, without a screen between us. So I asked her to teach me how to make the complicated maamoul and knafeh that once seemed so out of reach.

Traditionally on Eid, Mama baked enough desserts to share at the local mosque and with friends. As the baklava trays piled up, my little brother and I would sneak a bite or two.

Now, I know how to bake these delicious desserts myself, and I’m excited to put my skills to the test next Eid and carry on the family tradition.

Learning how to bake with Mama at my side has been my favorite part of being home. It’s brought us closer together and connected me to my roots while feeding my sweet tooth at the same time. I always underestimated the level of patience it takes to perfect this craft. Now, I see just how much skill — and love — are required.


Eslah Attar is a photo editor and photographer currently based in Ohio. Follow her Instagram @_eslahlahlah.

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