Every week during Ramadan, regional food reporter Hira Qureshi shares a food diary while she celebrates the month-long holiday away from family in her Philadelphia apartment during year two of the pandemic.
Time really does fly when you’re having fun, because, sadly, it is officially the last week of Ramadan.
It’s funny to think that a month ago I was on the phone with my mom and sister stressing about how I would make it through 30 days of juggling work and fasting. They suggested meal prepping, which worked for a week but failed after that.
Because now, in the final stretch, I think my month-ago self would be pleasantly surprised to find that there wasn’t anything to worry about. I was able to not only strengthen my spiritual connection but also hone my cooking skills and explore family recipes.
From taking a page or two out of my mom’s mental cookbook and diving into South Asian cooking to letting my cravings put together iftar to testing out recipes from new friends at 4 a.m., this Ramadan has taught me how important family and religious traditions are to me, that I’m capable of living my best independent life and that having sabr (patience) and tawakkul (trust in Allah) are the keys to keeping that spiritual thread taut.
So to make the most of the last week and treat myself for a successful month, I headed out to what is now one of my favorite halal joints, Manakeesh Cafe Bakery & Grill in University City.
Standing across the street from the AICP mosque, the Lebanese eatery has been on the corner of 45th and Walnut for about 11 years, run by Wassam Chatila and his son, Adam.
With the mosque close by, it’s the perfect spot to have iftar with traditional fare like their namesake flatbreads — manakeesh, sujuk kebabs (spiced beef sausage) and fool (hot fava beans). They even had a special Ramadan meal that comes with a date, drink, entree, soup, salad, side and dessert.
But this week, I was interested in the bakery, more specifically their desserts. Because I was on the search for my two favorite Ramadan sweets — basbousa or semolina syrup cake and maamoul or filled semolina shortbread cookies. (You could say I’m a fan of semolina sweets).
I picked up a square of cake and two cookies, one date-filled and the other walnut-filled. Deliciously sweet, the basbousa has a spongy texture that was filled with syrup. The cookies were soft and crumbly, sweetened by the date and walnut fillings.
I was curious as to how these rich treats were made, so I spoke with Adam about their baking process.
Adam said the cake is made in several ways in different Middle Eastern regions. His bakery makes the cake with semolina flour, baking powder and soda, butter, yogurt, Lebanese syrup, their special ingredient of coconut and some other ingredients he wanted to keep secret.
The ingredients are mixed together and poured out onto a buttered pan. Then, it’s pre-cut before baking and topped with cashews — “to add texture and get that nice crunch” – and sits in the oven till it’s golden brown.
Then when it comes out, the piping hot syrup is poured all over, making “this awesome sizzling sound and sucks up all that syrup,” Adam said. “It’s absolutely delicious.”
And it really was absolutely delicious — rich and sweet, perfect for dessert after a long day of fasting.
With the maamoul, it seems I was getting ahead of myself because Adam said the season for the cookies is just after Ramadan. The bakery sells them all year but bulks up on their baking as Ramadan comes to an end.
The cookies are known to come in three different flavors: date, walnut and pistachio. They’re buttery, semolina-based, stuffed with one of those three flavors and dusted with powdered sugar.
Though they’re usually meant for the Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, I was too eager to have that buttery cookie texture in my mouth.
I paired all these sweets with a rooh afza latte that I’ve been experimenting with — adding some of the rose syrup to my frothed milk and a drop in my coffee. The coffee and semolina sweets together made for a dessert plate that gave me all the holiday vibes, making for a well-deserved ending.
I want to thank everyone who took the time to read and listen to my diary this month as I chronicled the grumbles of my stomach.
It was a joy sharing my kitchen adventures, family recipes and spiritual journey with you.
I hope this diary has helped those celebrating find some comfort and those curious, some insight into the holy month of Ramadan.
Be well and maybe try your hand at some intuitive cooking, you just might come up with the perfect dish
Hira Qureshi covers food and drink for the greater Delaware Valley and Jersey Shore. She can be reached at HQureshi@gannettnj.com or 856-287-8106. Help support local journalism with a Courier-Post subscription.
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