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Sidon: The capital of sweets for Eid al-Adha

SIDON, Lebanon: People who travel through Sidon ahead of Eid al-Adha cannot help but notice the smell of sweets emanating from the bakeries throughout the city.

Sidon’s bakeries and sweet shops are busily preparing maamoul – small shortbread pastries filled with walnuts, dates or pistachios – a treat in high demand for the holiday.

During Eid al-Adha holiday, which falls on Friday this year, a few of the Lebanese in Sidon still make maamoul at home while many others purchase it from local bakeries.

As the Muslim holiday celebrates renewal, people buy new clothes and other items and goodies for Eid al-Adha, including sweets.

Bakeries work non stop during the holiday because of the rush for sweets. Many bakeries have moved to mechanized production as a result of the high demand, a change which some Lebanese criticize as straying from the local tradition.

While the origin of maamoul is known to be Turkish, the Lebanese like to say that they’ve had a hand in changing and improving the recipe throughout the years.

One resident of Sidon, Zakiya al-Asmar, recalls making maamoul with a date filling at home with her family as child. Today, she believes that she is one of the few to uphold the tradition of homemade maamoul for Eid al-Adha.

“We and our Christian neighbors used to bake maamoul for Easter and Eid al-Adha. But those days are long gone now,” she says.

“I’m one of the few in Sidon who continues to bake maamoul at home. Most people are buying from bakeries these days,” Asmar adds.

Sidon is renowned for its maamoul and other sweets because the city has so many bakeries and sweet shops.

Al-Baba is one of the largest sweet producers, having been renowned for six decades. During the holiday, the staff at Al-Baba work non stop mostly making maamoul in its many varieties, as well as baklava.

The founder of Al-Baba, Mohammad Bashir al-Baba, says that every sweet shop has a different way of making maamoul.

“Until today I closely follow the steps for preparing our maamoul. In the past we used to make bigger pieces of maamoul. These days we’re doing both small and big pieces,” said Baba, who is in his mid 80s.

He has a basic recipe for maamoul that is tried and true.

The shop still prepares maamoul “as we used to make it 62 years ago,” he says. “We still do it the same way.”

The basic maamoul recipe calls for semolina flour, yeast, ferkha (a type of potato starch), margarine, water and rose water, says Baba. These ingredients are mixed together to make the dough.

After mixing the ingredients, the dough is set aside for 30 minutes while the stuffing – made from pistachios, dates or coconut – is prepared.

At Al-Baba, the machines take care of the next step, placing the stuffing inside the dough and molding the biscuits into various shapes.

The pieces come out of the oven five minutes later and are left to sit for hours. Finally, powdered sugar is sprinkled over each biscuit.

Baba says that maamoul is a popular item mostly during Easter and Eid al-Adha. He says that the larger maamouls can be bought by the dozens and the small ones are sold by the kilogram.

Walking around Sidon ahead of the holiday, people are rushing in and out of sweet shops to buy maamoul for their friends and family. The rush is necessary as the shops are often known to sell out of the popular sweet during this peak of demand.

One of the customers at Al-Baba, Mahmoud Mehanna is proud of his city’s traditional sweets. “Sidon truly deserves to be called the capital of sweets,” he says.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 26, 2012, on page 2.

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