Razan Baker | Arab News
Thursday 5 October 2006
Last Update 5 October 2006 12:00 am
ALL wonderful things are hidden. You may not know about Halwani’s sweets, especially if you’re not a local resident of the Al-Faisaliah area. But if you pass by Halawani’s — a traditional sweetmeat shop — during Ramadan and ask the throngs of people gathered outside why they were there then you would hear the most tempting of things.
“Once you taste the sweets, then you’ll never forget,” said one old woman. Her husband added, “The taste keeps you craving for more.” The couple were buying Labaniya, Harisah, Laddu and Tahinia — Indian desserts that for centuries have now been adapted into the cosmopolitan multi-cultural and multi-ethnic melting pot that the Hijaz region is.
The couple added that a lot of people prefer giving each other plates of fabulously and attractively decorated traditional Hejazi sweets. In fact people appreciate traditional sweets to conventional modern chocolates.
In the Hijaz region, traditional sweets have their own symbolic and integral connection with the people here. A platter of sweets is a must have for all feasts and something widely distributed during Ramadan and Eid holidays. In a funny way, traditional sweets could be considered to be the same as Christmas pudding.
Halawani’s is a 130 year-old legacy that goes back to a time when a lot of Muslims from India came and settled in the Hijaz area bringing with them their wonderful aromatic herbs, spices, food and delicious sweets. Over time, the Indians became part and parcel of the cultural and ethnic mix-up of the locals and soon their delicious delicacies and desserts grew to becoming integral to the Hijaz area.
According to Abdulaziz Halawani, 60, who is one of the grandsons of the pioneers who initially introduced these Indian delicacies to the Hijaz, the Halawani store was started by four members of the Halawani family who Arabized the Indian sweets giving them a Hejazi touch and flavor. Now Halawani’s has grown to become a household name providing some of the most popular of desserts in Saudi Arabia especially in Makkah, where the first Halawani sweets initially appeared.
The integral connection of the Halawani family and sweets can be easily gauged by the family surname which in Arabic is a noun describing a person who sells or makes sweets. The Halawanis have worked hard for generations making sweetmeats. Their secret family recipes have remained in their family as a well-kept guarded secret. Generations of Halawanis have transferred recipes and the secret know-how of making delicious sweets from one generation to another — that is something that explains the reason why young Halawanis are always seen helping out at the family shop.
“It is something we are proud of and enjoy doing. We like sharing sweets with our children as our father shared it with us,” said Abdulaziz.
When Abdulaziz grew up and began looking for a job, he found one in Jeddah around 30 years ago and moved here with his father and family opening a shop in Jeddah along with his brother Abdulrahman who has dedicated his life to making sweetmeats.
The Halawanis have not only succeeded in introducing the sweetmeats in Jeddah, but have been instrumental in the spreading of the sweets around the Kingdom as people continue to order via mail. Sweets are sent as far as Riyadh, the Eastern Province and Cairo.
“We also get requests from foreigners who visit the Kingdom and have heard about us. We prepare sweets in a way that they are suitable for taking abroad,” said Abdulaziz. Even Saudi consulates and embassies abroad request desserts to be mailed to them on special occasions and during celebrations.
“Sending through the mail is not a problem,” Halawani said, adding, “Because the expiry dates last for 10 to 15 days in the hot weather, and around a month in the cool weather.”
Each of the Halawanis has his own fond memories of the sweets they produce. “I was only eight or younger but I can never forget how people and especially the elderly used to come all year long to buy from us at our shops in Mekkah,” said Abdulaziz, adding that children would rush to the shop after school to treat themselves with the pocket money they have saved. “It was not just a sweet; a meal is not complete without these sweets,” said Abdulrahman.
Abdulaziz continued to say that older Saudis used to eat Halawani sweets sometimes before dinner or after dinner and since that time eating sweets has become a habit and a tradition.
People may for sure look out for new different recipes of desserts to try, he said thanking God, “But they always comeback to the original Halawani’s and they have told us this themselves.”
These traditional dessert lovers believe sweets should be presented at special celebrations such as birthdays and weddings parties where they are served with other delicacies such as Tateemah. Tateemah is a combination of these desserts along with the traditional bread called Shuraik (rounded bread taking a shape of a big donut but crispier) with cheese and olives.
Halawani desserts are made from simple ingredients; yet require a great deal of supervision and expertise. They take anything from 30 to 40 minutes to prepare and then a couple of hours to cool. A combination of spices like ginger and cardamom is added to many desserts in the last minutes in the finishing stage.
To begin with what is used in Labaniyah is simply sugar, milk and water. The final taste is rich but was even richer before when fresh cow milk was used. Nowadays, alternatives are used together with water to make the sweets light and easy for digestion.
Hommos (crushed chickpeas) flower is used to make Laddu to which water and sugar is added until the dough is made and then poured into a tray with mini holes to make round Laddus. The Laddus are then collected and dipped in syrup, and before cooling spices are added.
In Tahinia, Tahin (flour) is used with sugar. At least 10 to 15 kilos are made per order because it takes a lot of tim. Tahinia is a very delicate dish to make and needs four people to supervise until it is finished.
Harisah includes Hommos flower, water, oil or ghee and combination of spices and nuts. The ghee is no longer used because of its increasing value, yet it can be made upon request. No ifs ands or buts, people would agree that Halawni’s Harisah deserves five stars fair and square.
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