Every year, Muslims await the new crescent moon, which dictates the first day of Ramadan or the ninth month in the Hijri calendar. The holy month is spent waking up to eat before dawn (suhoor) and fasting until sundown (iftar). What is normally a festive time celebrating food and family has been put on hold for the past two years due to the pandemic.

But this month, Muslims are finally able to celebrate together, gathering at the end of the day to break fasts and perform Tarawih prayers at local mosques.

An undeniably important aspect of Ramadan is the food. It is customary to break fast with dates, as they help raise the body’s glucose levels. Along with dates, Chef Aahed Kokash from Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai notes that the most popular foods during this time are typically ones high in vitamin C, carbohydrates, and protein, such as dried fruits, Ouzi (slow-roasted lamb with rice), Arabic mixed grill, and Biryani (mixed rice with spices and chicken or meat). Many also tend to celebrate with desserts like knafeh, baklava, and the Egyptian classic, Umm Ali.

“Umm Ali combines sweetness and traditional flavors—including soaked pastry in milk with butter, sugar and a generous mix of roasted nuts and cream,” Kokash says. “The texture is soft, creamy, crunchy, and soothing.”

Despite its delectable sweetness, the bread pudding relative has a dark history, said to have been concocted during Egypt’s Mamluk era, in which the Sultana of Egypt, Shajar al-Durr, married Izz al-Din Aybak, making him Sultan. Upset that Aybak was already married and planning to marry more women, al-Durr had Aybak assassinated while he was taking a bath.

Aybak’s first wife, Om Ali (whose name directly translates to “Mother of Ali”), retaliated, and supposedly had her and her son’s servants beat al-Durr to death. In celebration of al-Durr’s death, Om Ali asked her cooks to scour their pantry and create the most delicious dessert they could and distribute it to local households across Egypt, and thus, Umm Ali was born.

Thankfully, the dessert has transcended its grisly origin story and remains a commemorative and festive dish found in Arab kitchens around the world. “As children, we were very happy when our grandmother made the dish,” Kokash says. “Everyone from our neighborhood was invited when she made Umm Ali. We shared many special memories enjoying the dish together.”

Traditionally, Umm Ali relies on milk for its creamy texture, and Kokash’s recipe also includes desiccated coconut, creating a nutty and rich flavor, made more complex with the unique and blooming taste provided by the rosewater.

Many people also choose to add spices to their Umm Ali, such as cinnamon and cardamom. While it can be eaten hot or cold, Kokash recommends serving the velvety dessert hot with a refreshing glass of hibiscus iced tea.

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