Monday, March 25, 2013
Abu Afif Sweets
Established in Baghdad in 1973, Abu Afif Sweets makes a wide range of traditional Arabic pastries and candy. The descendants of founder Mounir Jamal's have continued to expand into new markets, adding more modern sweets such as chocolate to their offerings at a growing number of retail stores.
Luckily at least a few of Abu Afif's fresh sweets travel well, making plastic-wrapped bites like those pictured a great souvenir of the region. On the top left is a square of something that may be called helawa (I'm guessing--it's not identified by name on the Abu Afif website), pistachios held together by a dense, chewy, slightly sticky, and translucent brown gel. To the right, the same helawa is surrounded by milky nougat and a strip of qarmar-el-deen, a tart apricot fruit leather. On the bottom is a ball of the same nougat simply caked in pistachios.
Versions of nougat have been made and enjoyed throughout the Arab world for centuries. In Iraq it's known at min el sama (or mann al-sama, etc.). In Iran, it's gaz, derived from from gaz-angebin, a reference to an indigenous tree. White, nut-studded panish turrón was probably the product of long-ago Moorish settlement, and it likely influenced the development of Italian torrone.
Since nougat is such a tradition in the Middle East, I wondered why all of the recipes I found online called for corn syrup, a relatively modern ingredient. Wikipedia to the rescue! The sap that gives gaz its name is found on the plant but doesn't come from it: "The sticky white substance, exuded from the anus of the last instar nymph of a small insect which lives on the plant, is collected annually and is combined with other ingredients including pistachio or almond kernels, rosewater and egg white." Corn syrup is a modern substitute for the insect excretion.