Ink on my Apron: A Second-Generation Syrian Story
“Qatayef is very indulgent and was usually prepared when hosting guests or family for Iftar. My dad dies for it, and his love for food is always infectious. I remember him going crazy for my mum’s qatayef and I think that’s why I always loved it so much. To this day, whenever he eats it, it’s as though it’s for the first time.”
Four weeks of Ramadan with Ink on my Apron
Omayah Atassi is disconcertingly meticulous - a quality I am privy to a day prior to our meeting when she mails me a copy of the recipe she has chosen to showcase for my Ramadan series. As someone who has become as adept in the art of chasing recipes and unfulfilled promises as I have in sniffing out interesting stories and angles, I find this degree of attentiveness refreshing.
A quick scan leaves the purist in me slightly sceptical as she has enlisted the use of the all-American Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix in making the batter for the Syrian sweet qatayef. Only tomorrow, after I spend a few hours cooking with the second-generation Syrian American, will I understand how it is tweaks like this that are testament to the fact that food almost always serves as a vehicle for cultural and personal narratives.
From her, I will learn that there is so much back story and nuance behind recipes such as these – stories of immigrants hungry for the taste of home and forced to improvise to recreate the flavours they love. By the end of our afternoon, I will be left smiling at how life has come full circle for Omayah who went from being the six-year-old who asked her mother to swap the elaborate kibbeh and spinach and cheese fatayer pies she would pack for break for a more “normal” homogenous lunch box to someone who takes great pride in the fact that her mother is now teaching her how to make her great-grandmother’s legendary kibbeh, which nobody has quite been able to replicate to gain the rock star stature of the original.
As Omayah welcomes me into her picture-perfect home, she brims over with energy and enthusiasm and this, I realise, is partly attributed to the fact that she wants to pull out all the stops this year as she’s gone from observing Ramadan in the United States where she was in a minority to the UAE where the spirit of the season is hard not to embrace. Things are doubly special seeing as she just got married a few months ago and this will be the first Ramadan she and her husband observe together. I joke that the pressure is definitely on to impress him with her culinary chops.
Natural light streams in unfiltered through the floor-to-ceiling windows of her forty-sixth floor apartment bathing the house in sunshine and good vibes and perched as high as we are right now, with a sweeping view of the Dubai skyline and Financial District, it’s easy to trick yourself into believing that you can defy the forces of nature and the bane of every food blogger’s existence – quickly fading daylight hours.
Omayah’s tasteful aesthetic is hard to miss, right from the handpicked art hanging on her walls to personalised touches such as a collection of hardback cookbooks - with the couple’s names inscribed in their jackets – that was a wedding gift. Rugs are strewn around casually with that particular brand of nonchalant prowess that most Americans seem to possess and there is a reassuring lived-in warmth to it all. As I’m led towards the kitchen - which is to be the hotspot of activity for us – we walk past the dining room with a gorgeous rustic wooden table. There is no doubt about the fact that this is the talking point of the room and I immediately recognise it from Omayah’s food blog where it serves as a rather handy photography backdrop.
If I’d had an inkling about Omayah’s uber-efficient streak, my suspicions are confirmed when she shows me an industrial-sized sheet pan where she’s pre-prepared some of the qatayef pancakes, “just in case”. As we get to work on the qatayef batter, I quiz her about the presence of Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix in the recipe and our talk veers towards authenticity. She states that convenience was definitely the driving factor in what inspired her mother to come up with this batter. “Traditionally in the Middle East, nobody really makes the pancakes at home but in the US it had to be adapted because the pancakes the dish calls for weren’t easily available so my family had to come up with the recipe that I’ve shared today.” Having said that, Omayah is now sensitive to the fact that this particular brand of pancake mix is on the slightly expensive side in Dubai, which is why the recipe she will be sharing with me today is a completely made-from-scratch formula.
Omayah works methodically and with quiet confidence, that I can’t help but think has been passed down to her – seeing as she comes from a long line of talented home cooks – gently whisking all the ingredients for the batter, taking care to ensure that it doesn’t get clumpy. The resultant mixture is left to rest for about half an hour and our attention shifts towards making the indulgent sugar syrup in which the deep-fried qatayef pockets – with their unexpected akkawi cheese and cinnamon-spiced nut filling – will eventually be drenched. The addition of yeast gives the qatayef pancakes a delightful bubbliness, lending a texture that is part pancake, part crumpet.
With a precision that would not be misplaced in a laboratory, Omayah says, “When you’re making the pancakes you need to place the pan on a high heat and pour out a 3-inch round for 4-inch pancakes. If you’re making the other variation of qatayef that is filled with clotted cream, you want to make smaller pancakes but with these, you need them to be a little bigger so that you can fold them and they’re still a nice size.”
Without any prompting, our conversation suddenly takes on larger questions of food and identity. “I’ve always really loved food but growing up, Syrian food was something I took for granted. A big part of Syrian cuisine is the communal table and coming together and there’s also the other fact of our cuisine being quite diverse. A lot of people think of Levantine cuisine as just falafels and shawarma but really there’s a lot of care to the ingredients. Syrian cuisine is very seasonal and regional and so the ingredients and specificities and how they’re taken care of to create a dish are really important. Of late, I’ve begun to really notice how much people use things like za'atar and sumac and labneh in dishes. Like if you look at the Bon Appetit feed on Instagram, it’s labneh crazy. A lot of the time, many are using these ingredients and have no clue about their background or the history of its people. This is why I think it’s so important to be telling these stories so that it’s not just something on a plate because this food actually means something to a big population.”
As for the foods she’d pick to initiate non-Syrian and non-Muslim friends to the Iftar table, pat comes the answer, “Lentil soup or any kind of soup as it’s a great way to ease your stomach into a meal after your body has deprived itself all day; ijjeh, which is a pancake made with zucchini and eggs and qatayef.”
Qatayef seemed to be the natural choice that Omayah wanted to share for this series seeing as growing up, it was one of the things that only made an appearance in her home during Ramadan. “Qatayef is very indulgent and was usually prepared when hosting guests or family for Iftar. My dad dies for it, and his love for food is always infectious. I remember him going crazy for my mum’s qatayef and I think that’s why I always loved it so much. To this day, whenever he eats it, it’s as though it’s for the first time.”
Sweets play a large role in Middle Eastern culture and are usually a part of all festivities and celebrations. Omayah confirms this when she says, “Sweets have a big place in our lives during Ramadan. I’m not sure where the tradition started but I think after fasting all day, there’s nothing more satisfying than a bite of sweet at the end of Iftar. And during Ramadan, the sweets are sweeter than ever.”
Omayah Atassi’s Recipe for Qatayef
For the Qatayef Pancakes:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups + 2 tbsp water
1.5 tbsp plus 1/2 tsp sugar
1.5 tsp baking powder
1/3 tsp baking soda
½ tsp kosher salt
1 envelope (11 gm) instant yeast
2 tbsp orange blossom water
Neutral oil for frying (enough to cover the pot by 3 cms)
For the Sugar Syrup:
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp rose water
For the Filling:
4 oz sweet (unsalted) cheese / unsalted Akkawi cheese, crumbled (squeeze out any water)
¼ cup walnuts, chopped and ground (not too fine, retain a bit of coarse texture)
½ tsp sugar
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1) Mix all the ingredients listed for the qatayef pancake batter on low with an electric beater or by hand with a whisk until they are combined. Should not be clumpy. Rest for 30-45 minutes.
2) Make sugar syrup by whisking everything over high heat until the sugar dissolves. When it comes to a boil, reduce to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes. Set aside as the mixture needs to be lukewarm for the qatayef so that the cheese doesn’t harden.
3) Mix all the ingredients for the filling.
4) Put a pan or griddle on high, when ready reduce to medium heat. Pour out 3 inches for 4-inch pancakes. When it dries up at the top and stops bubbling, take it off the heat. You do not need to flip this pancake – cooking is only required on one side. The bottom of each pancake should be golden coloured, adjust heat as necessary.
5) Leave the pancakes on the side until they cool for about 30 minutes.
6) Assemble each individual qatayef by taking 1 tbsp of filling and putting it in the middle of the pancake. Fold over one side of the pancake towards you, and close the ends with a light sealing press of your fingertips.
7) For the final frying step. Heat the oil until very high (the oil should reach a temperature of about 175 degrees C). Test with a piece of bread and watch to see if it cooks immediately.
8) Fry each qatayef until it turns golden (about 1 minute on each side) and then submerge in the sugar syrup.
*Note – If you feel like the process of making the qatayef pancakes is labour-intensive and have access to the pre-made variety available in an Arabic grocery or specialty store, use those and then assemble them and fry as per the instructions in the recipe. The stuffed pancakes can also be made in advance and wrapped in paper towels and kept in the fridge in a zip-top bag for up to 2 days. Fry fresh and make sure the syrup is warm.
Photographs courtesy of Jehan Nizar and Omayah Atassi
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and food blogger at www.inkonmyapron.com.