The wife of former NRL player Hazem El Masri stepped into the spotlight when she penned her memoir. Here, in time for Ramadan this month, the author reflects on faith, family and her favourite Middle Eastern recipes.
By
Arwa El Masri

22 Mar 2013 - 4:19 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

With the start of every year, my heart longs for the coming of the holiest month of the Islamic calendar: Ramadan. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and a time when Muslims devote themselves to spiritual development and becoming closer to Allah through prayer, fasting, community service and making amends. During daylight hours throughout Ramadan, a Muslim abstains from food and drink, but after sunset, families gather for a meal that, while simple, is so powerful that after craving food all day, it feels as though it is fit for a king.

I love the way we all come together. As plates of mansaf(lamb stew) are dished up, the aroma of steaming hot yoghurt and rice fills the air with Middle Eastern baharat (a spice mix of cinnamon, pimento and bay leaves). As I look out my window and watch the sun set, the sound of the call to prayer, 'Allah Akbar’, echoes throughout the house. In the tradition of the Prophet Mohammad, we reach out to the plate in the centre of the table filled with dates and sweeten our dry mouths with the soft flesh of the Emirati fruit. My husband, parents and children sit around the table sharing laughter and stories as spoons hitting plates create the symphony of a hungry crowd.

This annual ritual unites families every night and there is always an abundance of food. From cumin-seasoned kibbe and dressed tabbouleh to sausage rolls, the spices and smells of the Middle East linger as the magpies outside signal that it’s time to settle down for the evening. Standing tall on our table is the bottle of Australian tomato sauce beside the jug of homemade lemonade with lemon zest and orange-blossom water to refresh and quench that all-day thirst.

We finish our meal with the sweet walnut-filled katayef, which brings back my first memory of this heavenly dessert. It amazes me that this has been described as peasant food across many cultures. While it is simple and made with a few ingredients, it is a satisfying indulgence. I remember the way my mother showed me how to fill the katayef pancake when I was a child. I was privileged and proud that she thought I was old enough to be in charge of dessert for my fasting family. As I held the dough in my hand, she carefully spooned in the filling of chopped walnuts mixed with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. I took a deep breath and the smell went straight to my head. I would pinch the edges of the dough together to make a half-moon shape and then it was ready for toasting. Traditionally, these pancakes are deep-fried, but my mother taught me to butter them on both sides and place them on the grill until they turned golden brown. As soon as they came off the heat, the katayef were dunked in sugar syrup laced with orange-blossom water; it was like the smell and taste of spring, and that first bite made the wait worthwhile, with the crunchy nuts and soft dough a perfect marriage. Katayef can also be filled with a sweet cheese or eaten fresh with ashta, an Arab cream, and sugar syrup, but my heart and tastebuds yearn for the walnut-filled version.

Despite my delight at what Ramadan brings to the soul, and to the table, my moment of ultimate happiness occurs in the final days of the month, preparing for Eid, when all Muslims farewell Ramadan for another year. In my family, ma’amoul, a traditional Arab biscuit, is only made for Eid; eating them at any time of the year just wouldn’t be the same. The semolina and flour dough crumbles with an aniseed kick, while the soft, sweet date filling with nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves melts in your mouth.

Making ma’amoul is a ritual that gives me much joy and connects me to the women in my family who have done this for generations. My preparation is meticulous. I carefully read my grandmother Hindiya’s recipe, even though I could do it from memory. Hindiya, the strong woman who is so much a part of me, dictated the secret ingredients to the soft dough and I wrote them down carefully not long before she died. Every time I make ma’amoul, I think of my grandmother and can almost hear her voice guiding me as I work.

Hindiya, like my mother, was a strong and resilient woman who married my grandfather at a young age not long after she had left school. She never wanted to be ignorant, so she made sure she and her children were educated. So many people wonder what makes Hindiya’s dough so soft. 'Sour cream," she said. I was curious how this traditional biscuit had an ingredient that was foreign to Arab food, so I asked her whether she had always used sour cream. It turned out it was my mother who had tasted the difference sour cream made to cakes, so she decided to add it to Hindiya’s traditional date biscuits. The new ingredient was a perfect fit and Hindiya loved it. My grandmother and mother always made sure they were constantly evolving, and the changes my mother made to Hindiya’s traditional ma’amoul recipe was just another demonstration of this; respecting the old and welcoming the new is how we evolve.

My childhood memories of holidaying in Syria flash through my mind as the smell of baking biscuits fills the air. Dates have long been used as a source of sustenance to travellers across the dry and harsh lands of the Middle East and they were the Prophet Mohammad’s favourite food. Still, to this day, dates are used to make a seasonal dessert eaten by millions every Eid.

When I was a child, I would watch the well-organised production line that my five aunts formed around Hindiya’s kitchen table as they rhythmically worked while she monitored each biscuit being laid out ready for baking. They would all be up baking until the early hours of the morning while the rest of us slept, and Hindiya’s apartment would smell of the date biscuits for days.

Today, if I close my eyes as I cook, I could almost be back in Hindiya’s kitchen. My three young children wake up every morning of Eid in Sydney to the same smell I did as a child. And like I did, they rush to grab one of the biscuits as they cool on the kitchen counter.

Just like my mother and grandmother have always done, I make hundreds of biscuits and pack them in parcels ready to deliver to close family and friends whom we visit on our yearly run. The experience of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid bring communities and families closer to Allah and to each other. And for me, it also brings me closer to my grandmother, who is never far from my heart.

These days, with so many dear friends asking me what Ramadan meals are like, I decided to invite them to one of our feasts. In a blend of proud Arabic/Australian hospitality, I prepared dishes blending all the Middle Eastern spices I could get my hands on. As I watched expectantly, I could see my guests respond positively to the explosion of flavours and I was happy when they asked, 'What’s in this?" or 'What’s that called?" I would share the ingredients, the history of every dish and who taught me how to cook it. As I took them on a tour of ingredients and flavours, I was also sharing stories of people like my grandmother and a homeland that is so dear to my heart. We ate, laughed and talked and, when they walked away, they knew me, my family and my religion just a little better. Food has an unbelievable power to unite people, and eating the foods of another culture is, in my eyes, a personal act of diplomacy.