Dishes, like everything else, do have origins. There is that moment in history when someone under certain circumstances, which do not necessarily have to be transforming or even slightly special, decided to combine a bunch of ingredients in a bowl that turned into something fantastic which people started and continued to consume.
In this regard, some dishes are associated with stories that have some kind of a sequence, leading eventually to those dishes. An example of that is the story of Om Ali, a delightful, oriental Egyptian dessert that comprises puff pastry soaked in sweet, vanilla milk and topped with nuts, raisins, and cream.
Such a dessert is quite tasty and available all year long but it becomes more popular during the holy month of Ramadan just like every other Arabic dessert. That is because Egyptians tend to consume more desserts during that month to satisfy their sweet tooth and compensate for more than 14 hours of fasting.
That said, the occasion on which the Om Ali dessert was first made is as remarkable as it is tragic.
Here is how the story goes.
The Origin of Om Ali
Om Ali literally translates to Ali’s mother. This is admittedly awkward as well as confusing. Who would name a dessert after a woman’s epithet?
Well, Egyptians would.
How Om Ali came into existence is the resolution of a sad story, or say a tragedy, that pretty much feels Shakespearean but is unfortunately true.
The story can be traced back to 13th-century Egypt.
At the time, Egypt was ruled by King as-Salih Ayyub, an Egyptian-born Ayyubi sultan who stayed in power for almost ten years from 1240 until his death in 1249. As-Salih was married to Shajarat ad-Durr, who used to be a slave woman but was lucky enough to become a queen after marrying the king himself.
Shajarat ad-Durr was a strong woman. She was pretty insightful and possessed a rare political vision as well as a strategic thinking ability that would make her fit perfectly not just like the king’s wife but as the real ruler of the country. That is what she was up to anyway. Her ambition was wild.
So destiny gives Shajarat ad-Durr a great gift. Her husband, the king, gets a tuberculosis infection. Soon enough, his health deteriorates concurrently with a sudden foreign, treachery attack by the French in a campaign led by Louis IX.
As the battle between the Egyptians and the French intensifies in favour of the latter, leading the French troops to advance and take over the Egyptian coastal cities one after the other, King as-Salih dies and Egypt is left with no successor.
The situation cannot be worse but the strong-minded queen wastes no time in mourning. She keeps the king’s death a secret, not telling anyone except for the closest ones of his ministers and military commanders. She puts his dead body in a coffin and moves it to a secret burial out of the city.
Shajarat ad-Durr then decides to rule the country and lead the military to win the war against the French. But the sultans in Syria and Iraq, whose supervision King as-Salih was under, do not approve Shajarat ad-Durr’s request neither do the Egyptians who refuse to be ruled by a woman.
So Shajarat ad-Durr decides to tweak things in her favour. She convinces Military Leader Ezz ad-Din Aibak to marry her. Upon this, he will become the king publicly but she will be the one who actually gives the orders. Shajarat ad-Durr also has one condition: Aibak must divorce his wife and abandon his boy, Ali, so the latter does not become a king after him.
What a hard choice! Aibak yearns for power but is reluctant to fulfil Shajarat ad-Durr’s condition. So he proposes a compromise. He will separate from his family but still will not divorce his wife. Having no other choice, Shajarat ad-Durr agrees with the hopes of changing Aibak’s mind later on.
But Aibak is not as naive as the queen thinks he is. Soon enough, Aibak starts to get agitated over his nominal position and how Shajarat ad-Durr’s is taking over everything. So he slowly starts to oppose her, makes little of her opinions, and rejects her orders.
He then goes on to limit her authority altogether until she is nothing but the wife of the king. Aibak slowly and steadily takes over the rule of Egypt and becomes the only one who gives orders.
That all is unexpectedly devastating. Instead of Shajarat ad-Durr moving on to achieve her dream of ruling the country and winning the war against the French, she hits a brick wall by the very man who is supposed to help her on her way up.
But Shajarat ad-Durr, as strong as she already is, bears all that and desperately tries to find a way out until the last straw hits and makes the situation utterly unbearable. The queen suddenly finds out Aibak has regained contact with his wife and even visits her frequently. “Aibak is doing nothing but belittling me,” Shajarat ad-Durr must think. “No, he is betraying me.”
Biassed by hatred and insisting on revenge, Shajarat ad-Durr sends out five of her strong men with one order to carry on: Kill Aibak. And so they do. The next day, the queen announces that Aibak passed away suddenly at night. But nobody believes her.
And the payback is almost spontaneous.
Shajarat ad-Durr then gets arrested by mercenaries hired by Aibak’s first wife, Ali’s mother. She and her maids beat Shajarat ad-Durr with sabots to death and eventually throw her corpse out on the street for everyone to see how cruel life can be once it turns its back.
Feeling she has already fulfilled her quest, Om Ali decides to further celebrate the assassination of the woman who tore her family apart and killed her beloved husband. So she makes a dessert of bread, soaked in sweet milk and topped with nuts and dried fruits. Om Ali goes around, giving the dessert away to people on the streets. And when those who were isolated enough not to hear of the tragedy ask: what is that dessert for? They are told the story which gradually turns into “Om Ali”, for short.
Ever since that tragedy happened, Egypt has witnessed innumerable changes in its political and social structures. Yet, as time went by, people seemed to forget the story of Shajarat ad-Durr and Om Ali or at least how brutal it was. And as a way to look at the bright side, they just retained the fine part of it, the dessert.
Ironically, Egyptians have been consuming the Om Ali dessert during the Ramadan celebrations despite the darkness it stemmed from. Or maybe we should look at it as the rain that puts down the fire at the end of Disney movies? Like the dawn of a new day?
Well, I am not quite sure how things turned out in the political arena after the death of Shajarat ad-Durr. But what I am 100% sure of is that this dessert is so delightful that you must try it.
So let’s hop into the recipe.
Om Ali was first made by combining bread, milk, sugar, and nuts. Over the years, the recipe has been updated by introducing new, but not many, ingredients to it. So instead of using plain bread, now it is made of puff pastry. Cream is also added to make the dessert richer.
That said, Om Ali is a moist, or rather a mushy, rich pudding that is incredibly easy to make and never takes more than 15 minutes. It can be baked in a casserole but the standard is using small clay bowls, each equaling one serving.
Here is what you need to make this delicious recipe.
4 sheets of puff pastry
1 litre of whole fat milk
1/2 cup of sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 cup of cream
1/2 cup of whipped cream
Shredded coconuts and raisins
Roasted almonds, hazelnuts, and peanuts
A sprinkle of powdered sugar
Start by taking the puff pastry out of the freezer and let it sit until it reaches room temperature. Bring two oven trays and cover them with parchment paper then place and spread the pastry sheets on them, two in each tray. Or if you have a larger tray that fits all four sheets, go ahead and use it.
With a fork, poke the pastry sheets multiple times. This step helps all the layers of the pastry to turn crunchy, leaving no mushy layers inside. Heat the oven for 10 minutes at 200°C. Puff pastry must be baked at such a high temperature to rise. Place the trays on the middle rack and leave them for around 15-17 minutes or until the pastry rises and turns golden brown.
Take the pastry out of the oven and set it aside for a couple of minutes then start to crush it into a large bowl.
In a cooking pot, pour four cups of whole fat milk, half a cup of white sugar, and one teaspoon of vanilla. If you do not have whole fat milk or if you want to make the milk even richer, you can add two tablespoons of cream.
Place the pot on high heat and bring the milk to a boil. Stir frequently to make sure all the sugar has dissolved. The milk must be extremely hot before soaking the pastry into it to help it get mushy.
While the milk heats up, go ahead and add the crushed pastry to the clay pudding basins while keeping an eye on the milk so it does not spill over. Using clay pudding basins is necessary because Om Ali will have to be baked in the oven. They also give better baking results. If those are not available, you can use metal pudding basins instead, or other types that can bear the high temperature of the oven.
After the pastry is distributed on the basins, toss the shredded coconuts, raisins, and the mix of roasted nuts. Adding a few more nuts leads to a tastier Om Ali. Sprinkle some cinnamon and with your hand, stir and mix the nuts with the pastry pieces.
Once the milk boils, pour it into the basins to cover the pastry. How much milk to add is a total personal preference but the original recipe recommends adding as much hot milk as for the pastry to turn super mushy. Leave the pastry for a while until it absorbs all the milk and see if you need to add a little more. Just make sure the result is pulpy so that there is no milk left in the basins.
The final step is to give the basins the beautiful golden brown top layer. Whisk half a cup of cream in a small bowl and pour it evenly on the basins to cover the top layer. You can also use whipped cream. Then sprinkle some powdered sugar.
Turn on the oven grill and let the oven heat for a while. Then place the tray with the basins on the middle rack and let them bake until the top layer turns golden brown. Take Om Ali out of the oven and let the basins sit for around five minutes.
Om Ali is better consumed warm but you can also let it chill in the fridge for around an hour and serve it cold. Just make sure you top it with shredded coconut and raisins before serving.