Meet the baker of Lebanon's most delicious sweets
Zalabi is one of Lebanon's most delicious and traditional desserts. (Image credit: Shutterstock)
Every day, Mohammad Nasab – aka master of all things sweet – makes zalabi, mushabbak and maakaroun. Yet despite the popularity of the nation’s beloved desserts, he is among the last in Sidon who specialize in these sticky delights. As a result, the small bakery in Sidon has become a destination for people from across the country with a hankering for something sweet, says Nasab, now in his 60s.
Mushabbak, something similar to a deep-fried sugar pretzel, maakaroun, a much doughier deep-fried sweet, and zalabi, small balls of sweet dumplings, have a short history compared to sweets like baklava, which date back to the Ottoman empire.
It wasn’t until around 1940 that the sweets began to be made in bakeries in Beirut, which is where a very young Nasab first learned how to create the trio of treats.
Decades later, Nasab moved to open his own shop in Sidon, where he has been settled ever since according to The Daily Star. His approach centers on the tradition of making the pastries by hand, and has made his goods popular around the Gulf, in Europe and even the United States.
“I went to Beirut while I was still 14 and started to learn how to make this kind of popular sweets at the Shami sweets shop,” he says.
“It’s now more than 40 years since then, and this profession has been a major part of my life since the 1980s when I moved to Sidon and opened a sweets shop with my brother, who passed away a short time ago.”
When asked about the secret of his success and his delicious sweets, Nasab repeats the word “cleanliness” three times. “You have to master your profession to succeed in it.”
When Nasab started making the semolina-based desserts, they were considered a winter treat because of their high calorie count, he says. But high demand among rich and poor alike, even in summer, has turned production into a year-round affair.
Everything in Nasab’s shop is done manually, and it’s no surprise that this is the reason his business has done so well. “It is not a secret, my mother used to make it at home during hard times,” he says.
The three desserts can have different shapes and different colors, but their base ingredients are the same: flour, semolina, mahlab (an aromatic spice made of cherry seeds), simple syrup and starch.
“Then you have to pound the dough on different kinds of molds to take the desired shape,” he explains.
Depending where you are in Lebanon, the sweets might take on different names. For example, in Sidon the local name for maakaroun is “Zeinab fingers,” while the sweet dumplings are called “the judge’s bite.” Mushabbak, however, is known by the same name everywhere.
A huge majority of Sidon’s residents – Nasab pegged it at an unscientific 80 percent – prefers maakaroun, while their neighbors in the Palestinian refugee camps come to Nasab for his sweet dumplings. People from Iqlim al-Kharroub, the majority-Sunni part of the Chouf, drive south just to pick up mushabbak.
Before his assassination, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was a regular at Nasab’s sweet shop. Nasab says he would take them and give them away as presents. Hariri’s sister, Sidon MP Bahia Hariri, still orders them “from time to time,” he adds.
His pastries even sweeten the days of Lebanon’s prisoners, he says: “Relatives take some of my sweets when they visit their beloved in prison.”
Nasab used to exports his sweets to the United States, Scandinavia and some Arab countries. These days, however, it’s more of a local operation due to of his ailing health and old age. Regardless, Nasab still churns out about 1,500 sweets a day – and has no plans to stop anytime soon.