Older generations of Middle Eastern home cooks, as I knew them, were inarguably gifted, but they seldom wrote down a recipe. And if they did, it was more likely to be inaccurate. They tended to mainly rely on memory and skip measurements altogether. Recipes have been handed down from generation to generation, if nothing else, based on good intentions.
Soon after I landed in the US as an immigrant to start a new chapter in life, I was swamped by the requests of friends and acquaintances for Middle Eastern recipes. I never wanted to turn down any, so I started a recipe book to document the full-proof ones. After testing the recipes in the books and websites of different food figures, I settled on one reference that has never failed me — Manal Alalem blog & website. Al Alem was and still my favorite cooking guru for Middle Eastern recipes — both the traditional and reinvented ones.
Thanks to her lucid yet detail-oriented directions and flawless measurements, she became the unrivaled female food figure with probably the largest Arab audience across the globe. She successfully streamlined the world finest recipes to millions of followers among Arab home cooks. In terms of expertise, influence, and popularity, Al Alem is – in my humble opinion – the Julia Child of the Middle East.
For nearly three decades, she has been on a path with hallmark accomplishments. As a self-taught cook, she launched her career by delivering cooking demonstrations to small groups of women in Kuwait. Her broad knowledge and excellent interpersonal skills equipped her to stand out as an influential public figure and propelled her into the realm of mass media, where she excelled as the host of stellar cook shows and became a significant contributor of culinary articles to numerous Arab magazines.
She capitalized on her image to launch her own production line of kitchen gadgets that carried her name. Additionally, she has been organizing popular cooking contests, food festivals, and developing recipes for multinational food companies.
Standing out at such a scale, in a gender-biased environment, indicates the superior talent, remarkable determination, and sharp business acumen of a self-made female entrepreneur. I felt intrigued to reveal the story behind Manal Alem’s prominence. What I have gathered from morsels of info released in magazines articles and TV interviews deepened my respect and admiration for her hard-earned accolades.
Ms. Alalem is a daughter of a Palestinian refugee couple who fled Haifa for Egypt in the second half of the 20th century. Like most Palestinian refugees, her parents prioritized their kids education. Alalem is a psychologist by training, but she never practiced. Instead, she embraced her passion for cooking and embarked on the journey that led her to where she is today.
At the peak of her resonating success, Al Alem was tested by the greatest hardship. She lost her daughter, a 24-year-old physician – after a fierce battle – to cancer. Her one woman show empire could have automatically crumbled over such a shockingly immeasurable loss. Strikingly, her wisdom, faith, and strong character rushed once again to her rescue.
After surviving the unavoidable grief, she pressed on, soared above her pain, and reinvented herself into a full fledged advocate and inspiring philanthropist.
Ms. Alalem is effectively partnering with WFP in their global campaign ZERO HUNGER in the Middle East. Her new wave of recipes calls for more plant-based ingredients and stresses on the rational use of leftovers to eliminate waste.
When the refugees crisis escalated in her region, Ms. Alalem didn’t turn a blind eye. Raised as a refugee herself, she can’t stauncher or more articulate advocate for Syrian refugees. She intentionally leveraged her immense popularity among the Arab audience to draw attention to refugees’ plight. She mentors female Syrian refugee who are attempting to launch food catering businesses. On her popular media channels, she shares her visits to refugees in the Zaatari Camp in Jordan, notorious for its deplorable human conditions.
Manal Al Alem is an exemplary case of resilience against all odds—displacement, a gender insensitive culture, and, last but not least, bone-crushing loss. When she appears on her self-hosted YouTube channel, her serene smile and mature, confident voice radiates warmth and hope, yet belies a life of hardships that are overcome with an iron will.
It is hard not to like her, and it is impossible not to venerate Manal Alalem as an influential female entrepreneur, adept culinary figure, and inspiring humanist who expertly blazed her trail in a tempestuous geographic region and judgmental culture.
The recipe below is for one of her signature cookies. I tweaked slightly the recipe to include some of my favorite flavor notes. I added to the date filling a hint of cloves. Additionally, I used butter instead of vegetable shortening, and substituted rose water with orange blossom. The dough was a bit crumbly and didn’t come together right away so I added some warm milk, one spoon at a time.
These cookies have an unmistakable cardamom note. If you are fan of this spice, you will not get enough of these beauties.
Recipe adapted from Manal Alalem
Makes 25 cookies
- 1 1/4 cups butter, room temperature
- 1 1/4 cups superfine sugar
- 3 cups all purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 2 to 3 tablespoons warm milk, optional. (See notes)
- 1 cup date paste
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 2 teaspoons water
- Sift together the flour, cardamom and salt.
- Beat in the bowl of a stand mixer the butter and sugar until its pale and fluffy.
- Add gradually the flour and run the mixer at a low speed, until a soft dough forms. In case the dough doesn’t come together, add one tablespoon at a time of warm milk until a dough forms.
- Mix the date paste with spices and water and form balls in size of hazelnut.
- Form the dough into equal-sized balls in walnut size.
- Flatten the dough balls and put inside a paste dough and wrapped around it. Roll it between the palm of your hands.
- You can leave the surface smooth and decorate it with a whole pistachio placed in the center like the original recipe. I like to shape mine using ma’amoul mold or traditional tweezers to embellish the surface and also to create nooks where the powder sugar could sit.
- In case the dough is crumbly, and doesn’t come together to form a dough, add one tablespoon at a time of warm full fat milk.