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Picture this: a honeymooning couple on a tour of Egypt. They are the youngest ones in the tour group by at least 20 years. But that's not what's bothering them on this trip of a lifetime, which has taken them to Cairo's famed Egyptian Museum, King Tut's tomb and the temples of Karnak.
It's the food.
The newlyweds love Middle Eastern food and were hoping to dine on some of the region's best. Unfortunately, the tour operators insist on serving a bland menu of "continental" cuisine at every meal. One evening in Luxor, the couple set out on their own and find a restaurant with a menu printed in Arabic and English. After a hearty meal of kebab, rice and tabbouleh, the honeymooners select a dessert item, Um Ali.
It is a delicious concoction of pastry, coconut, raisins and almonds. Back in Cairo the tour is drawing to a close, but the couple sneak off one more time for a good Egyptian meal and once more eat Um Ali. And like a lost Egyptian treasure, it will be years before they find this dessert again.
I was that bride; my husband was that groom; and a few years ago some Arab-American friends delighted us by serving us Um Ali. Mahmoud, who was born in Egypt, and his wife Nadja, who is Palestinian, seemed a little bemused by our enthusiasm -- much in the way I might be if a foreigner rhapsodized about having eaten Jell-O at a shopping mall food court in this country. They brought the dessert out on a tray and Nadja poured us strong Arab coffee from a brass coffeepot. I sank back into the cushions of their living room sofa and pretended I was back in Egypt.
"It's just phyllo pastry, nuts, coconut and raisins," Nadja said. "It's not hard to make." My husband remarked that he had tried to make falafel on several occasions, but the chickpea patties always fell apart when he tried to cook them. Nadja kindly sent us some falafel out of the next batch she made for her family. Mahmoud told us that Um means "mother of," giving the dessert the name Ali's Mother.
Who was the original mother who invented this dessert? I posed the question to several Middle Eastern experts, but no one seemed to know. One Egyptian tourism Web site claimed Um Ali was named after a queen during the reign of the Mamelukes, a military caste originating in Turkey that ruled the country from the 13th to 16th centuries. I found one or two recipes for Um Ali on the Internet, but no information on the dessert's origins. If Ali's mother really was a queen, wouldn't she have at least one cook preparing the royal family's meals? Did she have her own recipe, or was Um Ali something first improvised by a palace chef?
Nadja and Mahmoud now live in San Diego, and I've frequently berated myself for not following them around in their kitchen during the preparation of Um Ali and other Arab dishes. I've tried to find someone who can make this dessert in Phoenix, but so far, no luck. Many acquaintances of Middle Eastern background told me they'd never heard of Um Ali. A certain Middle Eastern restaurant here in the Valley seemed to take umbrage when I asked whether this dessert was on the menu.
"Oh, no. We're Lebanese," I was told.
I finally found Um Ali on the menu at another Middle Eastern restaurant, only to have my culinary heart broken. The waiter brought me a bowl of what looked like someone's leftover breakfast of cereal and milk. Soggy bits of pastry floated alongside walnut pieces and raisins. My son asked if I was really going to eat that. I took a few bites, and realized the Egyptian honeymoon was way back in the past.
Someday my husband and I will take our kids to Egypt, where we can have all the Um Ali we want. Until then, I'll keep trying to find the truth about Ali's mother and her fabled dessert.