A date with Sarah Al-Hamad

So we’re often told to do more food stuff on Funoon. It’s an opinion we share and welcome. We definitely should. Not least because food is yummy, and pleasureable, and often beautiful. But also because food draws people together, it is a universal language which transcends national boundaries, cultures and even divisions.

Sarah Al-Hamad knows this. She launched her rather lovely book Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee: Date Desserts from Everywhere at the Mosaic Rooms last week. Part travelogue, part recipe book, the book tells the story of Al-Hamad’s three-year journey around the world, tracing historic patterns of date cultivation, and exploring the significance of dates to historic and modern-day cultures as far apart as the Arabian Gulf, the Mediterranean and the United States.

This is, fundamentally, a book about connecting, and discovering bridges built. Al-Hamad’s photographs and stories of Ramadan preparations in the Gulf, the Liwa Date Festival in the UAE, Moorish architecture in Spain, and date cultivation in California’s Coachella Valley brings to life the mystical significance of the date to Muslim cultures, as well as the relevance of what she calls “this ancient, old-world fruit” to cultures far and wide. A fitting Arab proverb is included on one page: “The date palm has its feet in water and its head in the fires of heaven”.

The recipes are a heady mixture of local date specialties from around the world, and innovative re-interpretations of well-known classics using date-centric flavour combinations. Of the first group, there are recipes for rangeena – the Iranian date slice favourite, maamoul – rose and orange infused date shortbreads popular in Beirut and Damascus, and imqarets – street food date fritters from Malta. We are newly obsessed with the idea of date flavoured khubz bil tanur (tandoori flatbreads), as baked by Afghan bakers in the Gulf, and eaten for breakfast with white cheese!

At the launch itself, we were treated to what the book calls Date Energy Balls. With a name that perhaps doesn’t do their almost poetic depth and richness justice, these were little kebabs of dates, almonds and pistachios dusted with sesame seeds, shredded coconut and chopped pistachios. How exciting to find out that they were made to a recipe from Kitab al-Tabikh (Book of Dishes), a cookbook written in Baghdad in 1226, which particularly recommended them to travellers needing to keep their strength up whilst making the often arduous Hajj pilgrimmage.

Back to the modern day, and there’s a heavenly looking vanilla and date cheesecake, biscotti with pistachio, dates and figs, and flapjacks with mango, date and pumpkin seeds. There are also date, sesame and espresso milkshakes, a homage to the now iconic date shake popular in California’s Palm Springs. Our first stop, though, is going to be the date and ricotta churros. Three of the most glorious things in one dessert – life may never be the same!

Sarah Al-Hamad grew up in Kuwait, and moved to London 16 years ago. She now divides her time between London and Kuwait. This is her second book. Her first, Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf, was published in 2008 and was one of the first to bring together recipes from the cuisines of countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee: Date Desserts from Everywhere is available to buy here.

Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf is available here.

Photos courtesy of The Mosaic Rooms.

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