BEIRUT: Hasan Berjak drips with sweat as he and his fellow candy maker give a fluffy rope of ghazl al-banat a last tug, and the now gossamer-thin sugar fibers finally give out to their strength.
The delicate clouds of ghazl al-banat cotton candy belie their origins, for who would suspect this fragile sweet, literally named “girls’ knitting,” requires the strength and weight of two men to knead and stretch into submission.
Common throughout the region, ghazl al-banat is a sweet made from caramel pulled thinner than a piece of thread. The result is an off-white ball of fluff that has the taste of a baked sugar cookie, the texture of cotton candy and the messiness of most foods that are also delicious.
Though standard carnival cotton candy and ghazl al-banat are food cousins, so to speak, cotton candy is made from only sugar and water while the latter requires butter and flour, giving it a deeper, cookie-like flavor. The hand-pulled process also gives ghazl al-banat more texture and brittleness than machine-spun cotton candy.
Tucked on a narrow side street in Burj al-Barajneh, Borjako candy makers specialize in these poufs of sugar and offered to demonstrate the labor-intensive process to The Daily Star.
The work starts by boiling sugar syrup into a dark caramel.
Berjak, 32, and his fellow candy man Walid Kanafani, 41, use a large pot over a simple gas burner to heat the syrup. When the caramel turns deep amber, the two men dump the 5-kilogram batch onto a steel counter and let it cool.
Kanafani says the simplicity and quality of the ingredients are key.
“If the ingredients aren’t good, the process won’t work,” he says.
In the back room, a miniature cement mixer slowly turns flour and butter, toasted from beneath by a small gas flame.
The flour browns to a darker ivory color and Berjak transfers heaps of the stuff to a central workspace: an enormous steel table that looks something like a giant’s tart pan.
Kanafani waits for the caramel dough to cool enough to touch and then uses his hands and a few metal instruments to knead it before it becomes hard.
Borjako inhabits a tiny workspace made up of a main front room where most of the work happens, a small passage where the flour is toasted and a back room. Shelves and racks full of packaged bonbons and cooling trays of nougat line every wall.
Most of the work is done by gas stove and the solid forearms of Kanafani and Berjak. The most advanced technology is a machine that seals plastic bags full of candy.
In the 1940s, Borjako was located closer to Beirut’s Downtown in Zoqaq al-Blat. But other than the move to Beirut’s southern suburbs, little has changed about the family business.
Kanafani begins to diligently work the dough horizontally and thin lines of white start to form inside the translucent caramel, now ready to be tossed into the flour.
And so the real work – stretching a solid, 5-kilogram ring of caramel into strands so thin they could fit through the head of a needle – begins.
Tossing flour onto the caramel with each stretch, the two men work on either side of the table pulling the dough toward them, doubling the elongated strands and pulling again.
With every pull, the dough begins to lighten and looks like long strings of macaroni, and then thin spaghetti, and then long fine horse hairs, and then indistinguishable fluff.
One of the secrets to making ghazl al-banat is to add a little bit of sand to the caramel. The sand aids the stretching and falls out during the process, Kanafani says.
As the caramel strands become harder to pull, Kanafani asks one of the women assistants to toss on more flour from the kiln, which warms the caramel ever so slightly.
And as the men enter the final stage of the process, Kanafani laments working in the winter.
“In the old days, they would do it in the summer,” he says. The warm weather would make stretching the caramel a less arduous task.
Though the men make it look easy, Berjak has been perfecting his technique since 1993.
The family sells their product all around Beirut in neat bundles topped with candied pistachio.
Wiping sweat from their brows, the men shake the candy to release any poorly stretched chunks of caramel and excess flour and lay the product into tubs. The female staff joke that it looks like blond hair extensions.
The candy has a number of uses, most commonly to top ice cream, and other versions use red food dye in the syrup to make the end product pink.
Local chefs have incorporated the simple candy into desserts, trading it for the frosting in gourmet chocolate cakes.
But as first-time eaters stare at the strange tuffs of sugar in confusion, the best advice is to pull off a piece and just let the tiny strings of sugar melt in your mouth.