Easter in Lebanon, where I grew up, was an elaborate culinary feast replete with rituals that strengthened friendship and family bonds. Everyone participated in the preparations, young or old, and therefore felt much more involved in the celebrations. I left when I was 12 years old, and I still miss the hubbub of those Easters.
Soon after lent, my mother would get together for morning coffee with a group of her friends armed with their diaries and start scheduling each other’s baking days for making ka’ak wa maamoul. These are semolina based cookies traditionally filled with dates, walnuts or pistachios. The filling determines the shape of the cookie; round for the dates (meant to resemble Jesus’ crown of thorns), oblong pyramid for the pistachios and small pyramid shape for the walnuts. Baking ka’ak wa maamoul was a group activity as each cookie is made individually by hand. These ladies would make them in industrial-scale batches to offer to family and friends in the lead up to and on Easter Day.
My mother would plan her baking day meticulously. The catering for her friends had to convey how much she valued their help, so she would prepare a variety of baked goods and a multi-course lunch. The night before the bake was the calm before the storm. She would soak the semolina base in melted butter, orange blossom water and rose water in large plastic tubs. The heady scent of the butter and flowery waters would waft through the darkened house whilst we slept, no doubt infiltrating our dreams with sweet thoughts.
“The heady scent of the butter and flowery waters would waft through the darkened house whilst we slept, no doubt infiltrating our dreams with sweet thoughts”
I may have feigned illness to stay at home on her baking days as I have vivid memories of watching, mesmerised by her and her friends at work. My mother indulged me, maybe she guessed how much of an imprint these sights and sounds would have on me in years to come. I would join them, quietly shuffling into a spare seat around our large dining room table which was temporarily transformed into a production line, listening to their gossip as they rolled, filled and delicately decorated. I was even allowed to make a few of my own under close supervision.
First, I would roll a generous pinch of dough into a sphere, flatten it into a disc in my palm and then fill it with one of the three choices before patching it up with the dough so that I was left with a bigger, heavier sphere. This would then be gently pressed into the correct wooden mould before being tapped out with a single decisive movement. Everyone around the table would each make six in the time it took me to make one.
These days, at home in London, my workforce consists of three; my two teenage boys and myself, and we only make the date-filled ones as they are our favourite by far. As I prepare the dough the night ahead, I sense my mother’s comforting presence with me in that quiet solitary act. I have managed to rope in my sons as they fully appreciate the tactile appeal of the whole process. It’s like working with Play-Doh. They particularly enjoy using the wooden moulds for the satisfying whacking noise they make on impact with the counter.
“As I prepare the dough the night ahead, I sense my mother’s comforting presence with me in that quiet solitary act”
Were my mother to see how few ma’amoul we produce, I suspect she would feel sad for me and ask if I have any friends. In Beirut, as soon as she had finished her early morning coffee on the balcony, her house would start filling up with neighbours, friends and relatives coming to see her. Whenever she came to visit me in London, she would always remark on how quiet my home is. At the end of the day she would say: “your doorbell didn’t even ring today, are you sure it’s working?”
The other wonderful tradition of Easter that my family relished in was smashing boiled and decorated eggs competitively on Easter Day. The colouring of the eggs would take place on Good Friday and be one of the few kitchen-related tasks my father was active in. After lining the kitchen table with old newspapers (there were a lot of spillages as eggs were transported to and fro), he would pour hot water, drops of food colouring and an ample amount of white vinegar (so that the colour holds) into large cleaned out food tins, one for each colour. To this day, whenever I smell this vinegar, I see him in my mind’s eye, as excited as a child over this ritual. The whole family would gather around the table to dye and decorate under his tutelage.
“Every time I make ma’amoul or sit down to breakfast on Easter Sunday, ready to smash eggs, I am reliving my own childhood”
My father’s gentle handling of these eggs did not protect them from their destiny in battle. As soon as they went on display in baskets filled with shredded paper and mini plastic chicks, my siblings and I would constantly eye them up to determine which was the strongest. On the morning of Easter Sunday, we would sit down to a big breakfast having chosen our egg and start tapping it against our opponent to see which one would crack first. It was a loud and fun game with much potential for cheating. Admittedly, it’s steeped in religious symbolism and our nod to that was that on every tap (which became gradually more aggressive), we would say the Arabic equivalent of “Christ has Risen” and the reply would be “He truly has”.
As soon as my children’s motor skills were sufficiently developed so that they could grasp things in their little hands, I introduced this custom into our celebrations. Unsurprisingly, it has been a big hit with them ever since.
I have not been successful in teaching my children Arabic, and we haven’t been able to visit Lebanon more than a couple of times in their lifetime so far. Their grandparents passed away before they were born. However, I have done my best to educate them about their heritage through these fun food traditions. It’s not just about them of course, every time I make ma’amoul or sit down to breakfast on Easter Sunday, ready to smash eggs, I am reliving my own childhood, remembering my parents and the happy times we shared.
Follow Angela’s weekly blog via Instagram: @angela_zaher
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