Qatayef, an unbeatable Ramadan sweet
AMMAN - Fried on one side and fluffy and airy all around, Qatayef is folded into a crescent and sealed to prevent the fresh unsalted white cheese, cream or crunchy nuts filling from spilling, while releasing a magical aroma of rose water extract.
Qatayef, a traditional Arabic sweet, is among the many special treats prepared during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan to compensate the day-long abstention from eating and drinking.
Digging into the origin of Ramadan’s most popular sweet is a journey to the times of the Fatimid Dynasty and Abbasid Caliphate when the recipe was invented.
“Qatayef is associated with the long days of fasting during Ramadan. Every day after iftar, the fast-breaking meal at sunset, people enjoy one or two pieces of Qatayef as a tradition,” said Mohammed Syam, an employee at a sweet shop in Amman. “During Ramadan, Qatayef is served in every house as the main sweets after a heavy meal.”
“In the past, Qatayef was stuffed with either walnuts or unsalted cheese but nowadays there is more variety to fit different tastes. For instance, the filling could be pistachio, whipped cream or a mixture of hazelnuts, almonds, raisins and coconut. It is then fried or baked,” Syam said.
He said in addition to modifications made to the original filling, the method of preparing the sweet has changed as well.
“It used to be captivating to watch the baker pour the mixture of flour, baking powder, water, yeast and little sugar with a steady hand into a hot plate so it can be cooked only on one side. Today, there are special machines that replaced the sweet makers but, in some areas, they are still using the traditional method,” Syam said.
Another popular sweet is the smaller version of the Qatayef. The dough is small and usually kept half open and filled with whipped cream and a sprinkle of ground pistachio.
“The Assafiri Qatayef (meaning the size of a small bird) are also very popular to those who would like to watch their weight after eating a huge meal. They are folded only half way and served with scented syrup without frying or baking,” Syam added.
The origin of this popular sweet goes back to the Fatimid Dynasty while some say it started during the Abbasid Caliphate established by Abbas ibn Abdul-Muttalib (566-653).
Abdulah Farhan, son of the owner of Amman’s oldest Qatayef shop, is keen on following in his father’s footsteps by maintaining the traditional sweet production.
“My father, Abu Ali, opened the shop in 1960 because of the demand for Qatayef, especially during Ramadan but people want to eat that sweet anytime of the year because they simply miss it,” Farhan said.
“After my father’s death, we wanted to keep his legacy alive and decided to continue running the family business. Today the whole family is working in the shop and doing very well,” he said.
“There are many who believe it originated in the Fatimid Dynasty but no one is sure. Street vendors sold them in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and, of course, here in Jordan in the old days. Palestinians use Akkawi cheese, a white brine cheese as a filling, which is named after the city of Acre. Syrians use pistachio more while Jordanians love walnuts,” Farhan said.
“In Lebanon, they call them ‘Atayef’ and my father told me that he learnt about the sweet when he was in Lebanon. When he returned to Amman, he decided to make Qatayef exclusively and this is how it started,” Farhan said, adding “Jordanians are big fans of Qatayef.”
“We have customers from almost everywhere. Jordanians come first followed by Syrians, then Egyptians and Filipinos and there are many who ship them to their family members who are working in the Gulf. Really, Qatayef is part of Arabs’ traditions,” he said.
Talking to fans of Qatayef was easy as many queue patiently waiting to buy the sweet before heading home for iftar.
“It is as necessary as water to people who fast. They must have one or two pieces after Iftar. The simplicity and the taste are unmatched. Although there are many options for sweets, nothing managed to beat Qatayef, even the Kanafeh with its melting cheese and thin noodles,” Tareq Qaraan said.