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The Queen of all Arabic Sweets....
One thing brings Lebanese of all sects, classes and political affiliations this time of year: Ramadan Sweets. Whether you are waiting until sunset to have those delicious once-a-year-sweets, or a non-believer stopping by for a mid-day hot and fresh Kallaj, or a tasty Mafruki, Ramadan sweets have a special way of uniting the nation - especially that queen of all Ramadan delights (and by default Arabic Sweets)-- Helewet al Jibn.
Travel where you may across the globe, that creamy, soft, difficult-to-prepare delectable connotation of cheese pastry dough and kashta offers unparalleled deliciousness. It also provides my favorite Ramadan tradition: sampling and comparing various versions of helewet al jibn after a long hot day of not being able to get any work done because everyone is fasting.
The evening comes! And the joy of comparing each and every delicious bite of Helewet al Jibn arrives.
The sweet has an extensive production process, which is perhaps why it is so widely available only during Ramadan. Helewet el Jibn is a masterpiece of culinary achievement and centuries of inherited good-taste. It’s name refers to the thin, soft cheese dough which is made out of white cheese, semolina and some sugar syrup, filled with soft, cold kashta. The cheese is slowly melted, and then mixed with semolina to make a sticky dough which is then kneaded and thrown into a paper thin wrap, and stuffed with kashta.
The internet holds many videos or recipes which claim to offer “easy” versions of this most challenging of Arabic products, but do not be fooled! Maintaining the perfect temperature, the right amount and speed of stirring the cheese, and artful dough-throwing over a large metal tray requires practiced technique - not to mention sourcing the right ingredients. (Don’t be fooled by this Nestle Video! which claims you can use canned sweet milk) For a sense of how long the real process takes see this Arabic Language cooking show. An interesting English version is available on Dede Med’s Mediterranean Cooking , again with some corners cut.
Normally, our journey would begin in Trablos (Tripoli) - the source of all delicious Arabic Sweets. ** This is where Helewet al Jibn was invented, and many say, perfected by Abdel Rahman al Hallab who in 1881 began offering the most delectable sweets to travelers far and near; his inheritors (Hallab’s sons) opened the likewise world famous Qasr Al Helou which produces amazing kashta and cheese-based creations, baqlawa, and its Arabic ice-cream. A destination for both locals and tourists, Qasr Al Helou is also a first-class dining experience, and you will enjoy your Kallaj on a porcelain white plate, served to you by white-aproned waiters.
While Trablos offers without comparison the best Arabic sweets, it might be far for those, like me, based in Beirut without a car, or concerned from the less than stable political situation in Trablos these days. Fear not, as Beirut offers many worth-while alternatives. Helewet Al Jibn, is more typically offered as strings of dough topped with kashta and pistachio; however the refined version popular during Ramadan is served rolled (laf) and on a plate topped with crushed pistachio and sugar syrup (kater).
Heleweyet Zeina is a small neighborhood sweet shop in the Sanayah Area. Normally fairly low key, featuring good baqlawa, during Ramadan Zeina transforms into a highly-staffed inventive sweet shop (they make kashta and pistachio sushi rolls!). This was my first stop, as it is fairly close to the new Ghazi Al Hallab that opened up in Malla on the way down to Concorde, and I decided to simultaneously taste Zeina and Ghazi al Hallab’s versions.
Zeina’s Kashta is delicious and lightly sweetened (a plus for me), made in very small bite-size rolls, sprinkled with pistachios. Unfortunately, the dough was a big chewy, perhaps a little too high on the cheese / semolina proportion. The kilo is fairly cheap here, about 15,000LL per kilo. On the other hand, one of the Hallab Inheritors Ghazi Al Hallab has several branches open throughout the city and greater Lebanon. The Helewet rolls were thin but well stuffed, and soft to the touch of a fork. The dough is smooth and creamy, the exactly correct texture for delicious helewet al jibn. However, the un-syruped dough is a tad too sweet for my taste.
The next stop is my usual favorite, El Baba Sweets, on Qoreitem. Unfortunately they were fresh out (call ahead or go early) and so we headed to El Baba in Tayyouneh area. The Helewet al Jibn rolls here are generally wide and overstuffed fingers. Tayyouneh is also fresh out of laf (rolled) and so we opt for the traditional plate. The dough is creamy and not too sweet, but in comparison with Ghazi al Hallab, the dough is a bit stringy (maybe evidence of too much cheese). It’s hard to tell though, since the rolled version is typically smoother.
My final stop is the other branch of Ahmad Aouni al Hallab on Raouche. Open late most nights, and featuring a sea view and table service, this Hallab is a late-night favorite. Again, they lacked helewet al jibn rolled, but the plate was overflowing and surprinsingly tasty for a place with such a lovely view. It featured smooth soft cheese and tasty creamy kashta. In comparison to Baba and Ghazi Al Hallab, however, I found the kashta a bit too sweet, and again the cheese dough slightly more springy than desired.
With Eid weekened upon us, it is time to name a winner, and Ghazi al Hallab takes the cake for this year (or the Kallaj). Get there early however, or call ahead, as I’m not the only person obsessed with this sweet.
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