Despite being a relatively small country (with a surface area of just 10,450 square kilometers), Lebanon has a very varied landscape and climate, hence an extremely interesting cuisine. The specialties of Lebanese cooking are the common heritage of the different communities that make up the country, but some dishes—often linked to religious feasts and holidays—are specific to certain groups.
Lebanon boasts numerous Ramadan dishes but one in particolar—kellej—is particularly symbolic of this period of fasting.
During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims have to fast all day every day, but at sunset they are allowed to treat themselves to goodies to make up for the sacrifice!
The problem of Ramadan isn’t so much the fasting as how much to eat. From dawn to sunset, the faithful deny themselves all food and drink, but after sunset they break the fast and sit down to eat.
A Ramadan meal is carefully codified from the beginning to the end, which is where kellej fits into the story. Ramadan just wouldn’t be Ramadan without this typical dessert!
Other typical Ramadan sweets exist in Lebanon—one such is haddef, a refined baklava filled with walnuts and cut into small squares—but kellej is certainly the best loved. The name on its own conjures up the month of fasting—kellej Ramadan.
At iftar (the moment when the fast is broken), the streets and squares are empty, but later they fill up again with people out to buy steaming hot kellej. Throughout the month, confectioners invade the sidewalks, where they set up huge pans full of boiling oil to fry the sweet in.
So what exacly is a kellej? It is simply a very fine crepe filled with cream, fried in oil, and dipped in syrup, almost like a sweet version of a Tunisian brik.
The batter is made with flour, eggs and milk, and has a light texture which allows it to be rolled out very finely and cooked on a hot plate. The resulting pastry is very fine, dry and crisp and can be conserved for a long time.
The filling conists of a sort of thick custard made with milk, sugar, a little flour and starch, all gently cooked and scented with rose or orange blossom water.
The fine pastry (warak kellej or kellej paper is softened in the milk), a tablespoonful of the filling is then poured into the center and the pastry is folded over to form a sort of hand-sized rectangle. After being left to dry for ten minutes or so, the kellej is then fried in the boiling oil. When golden, it is taken out of the oil and sprinkled with syrup.
The kellej has to be eaten piping hot. Some people prefer to buy their kellej before iftar, while others go out after their meal to eat hot, fragrant kellej in the streets—but abolsutely no one is prepared to miss out on this crispy sweet with a creamy heart.
Oddly enough, under the name of tamryieh, kellej is also the symbolic sweet of a number of Christian feasts, though it crosses nobody’s mind that they are identical.
No Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows at Hamra or Beirut would be complete without tamryieh, and the same is true in the mountains of Ajaltoun for the Feast of Mar Zakhia (Saint Zaccarias), and in Reyfoun for that of Mar Roukouz (Saint Roche).
So whatever the festival, boiling oil, sugar and cream are indispensable ingredients!
Kamal Mouzawak is a contributor toSaveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, Lebanon’s most important f&w monthly.
Adapted by John Irving