Ma’moul: Toward a Philosophy of Food

15 April, 2022
The beau­ty of ma’­moul (pho­to cour­tesy Fadi Kattan).


A reli­gious cel­e­bra­tion food….or sim­ply a sweet treat?


Fadi Kattan


In this region of the world, dis­cus­sions are plen­ti­ful on belong­ing, com­mu­ni­ties and reli­gious groups. This month, the three monothe­is­tic faiths cel­e­brate a feast, Pesach, East­er, Eid el Fitr, all cen­tered around Jerusalem — the only city in the world to car­ry such charged reli­gious sym­bol­ism inter­weav­ing all three faiths.

In Pales­tine, lit­tle sweet treats, ka’ek bil ajwa and ma’moul bil joz come to liv­en up these cel­e­bra­tions, with their del­i­cate semoli­na dough and fla­vor­ful date and wal­nut fill­ings. Those two lit­tle sweets tell sto­ries of arti­san­ship, art, trans­mis­sion and com­mon celebrations.

From the uten­sils used to the art of mak­ing those delights, the essence is trans­mis­sion. Some fam­i­lies hold onto the wood­en molds used for the ma’moul from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, with that dis­tinc­tive star and sun shaped carvings…possibly a much old­er ref­er­ence to the pagan gods and god­dess­es of the area?

Those sweets go back, per cer­tain claims, to Pharaon­ic Egypt. Oth­ers cred­it their sym­bol­ism to Jew­ish, Chris­t­ian and Mus­lim faiths. 

In some neigh­bor­hoods, the women gath­er togeth­er to make them in groups, while in oth­er fam­i­lies, each does her own and dur­ing the rit­u­al house vis­its to wish well onto thy neigh­bor, they dis­play the art of their dec­o­rat­ed ka’ek and ma’moul, com­pet­ing for the title of most beau­ti­ful and tasti­est treat of the year!

These lit­tle treats cel­e­brate each home in Pales­tine and beyond around the feasts and I find this com­mon­al­i­ty and gath­er­ing spir­it of ka’ek and ma’moul a pow­er­ful sym­bol of fra­ter­ni­ty among the dif­fer­ent faiths.

And yet…

Why don’t we look at it differently?

Pales­tin­ian date cook­ies — ka’ek bil ajwa (pho­to cour­tesy Chef in Disguise).

Ka’ek and ma’moul are an exam­ple of how local foods were giv­en a sym­bol­ic reli­gious iden­ti­ty but in real­i­ty come from a ter­roir and are — yes — rit­u­al­is­tic and yet are a local food, to which a reli­gious label and sig­nif­i­cance were attached, some­times even chang­ing with time as faiths changed and yet the local ter­roir and its cui­sine stayed the same.

In this think­ing line and from a pure­ly log­i­cal stand­point, we can then say that there are no foods attached to one faith, but foods from a ter­roir that are strong­ly inscribed in the place and some­times used by one com­mu­ni­ty for a cel­e­bra­tion or a rit­u­al or some­times cooked more by one community.

As a chef who cooks to cel­e­brate local pro­duce and is inspired by tra­di­tion, can I say that the cui­sine inspired by my mother’s cook­ing and grandmother’s cook­ing is a Catholic cui­sine? Or am I cook­ing Pales­tin­ian pro­duce, cre­at­ing from inspir­ing Pales­tin­ian tra­di­tions and inter­pret­ing them into my own take?

The idea pro­found­ly dis­turbs me philo­soph­i­cal­ly that there are cuisines of a faith, whichev­er faith that is.

I believe that a culi­nary tra­di­tion or a cul­ture is some­thing that you are born into, and that is made up of the cui­sine or cuisines that awak­ened and influ­enced you. The issue of acknowl­edg­ing food prove­nance is a foun­da­tion stone to our iden­ti­ties, but faith is some­thing that each of us is free to choose — to remain in or ven­ture beyond the one in which we were raised.

Faith is not a defin­er of a culi­nary tra­di­tion, even though faith has its influ­ence on how you eat and what and when you eat. We can­not deny cel­e­bra­tions being linked to food and foods that car­ry a sym­bol­ic val­ue in faith, just as we can­not deny that faith and the rules that come with it may allow or out­law cer­tain foods and tra­di­tions and yet, I think there is no food that can be called spe­cif­ic to this or that faith!

We would be deny­ing the diver­si­ty and the cel­e­bra­tion of two things, the first being the mul­ti­faith peo­ple liv­ing in a place and on the oth­er hand, the mul­ti­tude of per­son­al his­to­ries that shape a people.

Imag­ine how sad the world of food would look if there were only Hin­du Food, Bud­dhist Food, Yazi­di Food, Jew­ish Food, Chris­t­ian Food, Mus­lim Food … rather the mul­ti­tude of region­al cuisines, of local recipes, of tra­di­tion trans­mit­ted by a select town or village…

The vision of a world divid­ed by faith as a sep­a­ra­tor of food tra­di­tion is fright­en­ing as it leads to a vision of exclu­siv­i­ty on a faith basis, or on an eth­nic basis…from a region of the world where ancient civ­i­liza­tions and faiths lived, passed, left, dis­ap­peared, influ­enced, inspired, such a vision fright­ens me and sad­dens me!

Let us cel­e­brate ma’moul as a Pales­tin­ian, Syr­i­an, Lebanese, Jor­dan­ian treat every day, and let us leave each oth­er free to attach whichev­er reli­gious sym­bol­ism to it one prefers, and bake ma’moul all year round or only on cer­tain feasts if we feel like it — I would not mind hav­ing some every­day as you may have understood!



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