Lebanon’s Tripoli, capital of oriental delicacies

Friday 04/03/2016
Kasr al Helou run by the Hallab family is one of the most renowned sweets shops in Tripoli, Lebanon.

Tripoli, Lebanon - Lebanon’s northern port city of Tripoli, renowned for its medieval history and great heritage, is also known as the “Capital of Oriental Sweets”, a reputation earned over more than two centuries of produc­ing tempting taste-tempting treats.

Tripoli boasts a wide array of ori­ental sweets prepared according to traditional recipes originating from a host of different cultures, especial­ly Ottoman, but which have been revisited and modified to seduce the most refined palates and authentic sweets lovers.

Unique specialities such as Znoud el Sett (Arabic for “Lady’s Arms”), perfectly rolled pieces of puff pas­try filled with warm and creamy Kachta, basking in syrup and deco­rated with red rose; or Halawet el- Jibn, a mixture of sweetened cheese, cream and syrup, have drawn many a sweet tooth to Tripoli from across Lebanon and abroad.

A visit to Tripoli is not complete without a stop at one of its many sweets shops, some of which oper­ate in their old premises in arcaded souks inside the old city, the way they have for more than a century.

Tripoli’s sweets industry is a se­ries of family businesses passed down through generations, with each family becoming famous for its special sweets. Kasr al Helou (Palace of Sweets) of Abdel Rahman Hallab and Sons is one of the most promi­nent, with branches across Lebanon and in other Gulf countries.

Tripoli keeps the secret of great sweets in Lebanon and the Arab world that many still wonder about. The recipes attracting residents and visitors have been devised, revisited and fine-tuned over many years, ex­plains Oussama Hallab, a descend­ant of Hallab family, who runs Kasr al Helou with his three brothers.

“In the past, Tripoli was famous for its sugar cane production. The big surplus in sugar was a main fac­tor in shaping the city as a hub for the production of oriental sweets, which were originally prepared at home by housewives competing over who would make the best des­sert,” Hallab said.

Sweets-making in Tripoli is a very old tradition that became a full-fledged profession. Many owners of sweets shops trace their family businesses to the 19th century when great-grandfathers sold sweets on handcarts.

“Our family started the busi­ness back in 1881 when an ancestor opened a small shop in the old city. The business was later expanded by his sons and grandsons and even­tually many branched out and es­tablished their own outlets,” said Hallab, whose father Abdel Rahman had split from the main family busi­ness.

Tripoli’s sweets were influenced by interaction with surrounding cultures, Hallab explains. “For in­stance, the Palestinians of Nablus who were famous for their Kunafa Nabulsi, a local dessert prepared with a local cheese, transmitted the know-how to the people of Tripoli, who introduced amendments to the original recipe and changed its name to Zunafa Taraboulsi in which they replaced the imported cheese with a local one and created a new version with cream.”

Sweets were traditionally made on special occasions, such as wed­dings and births, to mark special events such as religious feasts and during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and when prominent guests visited the city. Some sweets were created and named for visiting dignitaries.

Another sweet, Faysaliya, was named after Prince Faysal (future king of Iraq) and created on the oc­casion of his visit to Tripoli in the 1920s.

The high quality of ingredients used in sweets production is at the core of Tripoli’s reputation. “Some components are imported and oth­ers produced locally,” Hallab said. “For example, ghee is brought from Romania, milk is either local or im­ported from Bulgaria, pistachio comes from Iran, whereas pine nuts are local.”

For the Haddad family, their spe­ciality is Halawa shmaysiya, which consists of Turkish Delight (lokum) cooked in local cream and powdered sugar.

“This type of sweets is only pre­pared by our family. It is an ex­clusive creation that can only be found in our shops,” noted Khaled Haddad, who inherited the recipe from his ancestors.

He said that his family has been preparing the sweets for decades ac­cording to the original method. “In our shops, we only sell this kind of sweets. We also kept on selling it on handcarts roaming the city,” Haddad added.

Oriental sweets-making is an in­herent part of Tripoli’s culture and heritage, which the residents have succeeded in preserving and export­ing beyond Lebanon’s borders.

Oriental sweets lovers can order online and have orders delivered within hours across Lebanon and by mail abroad, a service recently intro­duced by Kasr al Helou.

For many residents of Beirut, the 90-minute trip to Tripoli for a taste of Znoud el Sett or Halawet el-Jibn is definitely worthwhile.