Ramadan is coming to a close and we thought we’d share a wonderful dessert recipe that is a favorite. It is a perfect way to end an iftar or evening meal that breaks the fast that the faithful observe each day during the Islamic holy month. The recipe below for Halawet El-Riz conjures up a rice, cheese and cream dish that is interesting not only in its delectable fusion of ingredients, but as is so with many recipes, because it is the culinary result of human endeavor through the centuries.
The Egyptian rice called for in the recipe has a fascinating derivation. Today rice seems ubiquitous and is used in many cuisines. However, no one is really sure of its origins. There are claims its cultivation began in Java and Cambodia. What is known from archaeological evidence is that rice was being grown and consumed in China more than 7,000 years ago. Evidence of rice was also found in India around 1,000 BCE. Ancient Egypt was considered the most important spice trading port of the Eastern Mediterranean (circa 80 BCE), and Alexandria was central to that activity, even having one of its entrances called the “Pepper Gate.” Here Arabs, Syrians, Nubians, Ethiopians, Armenians and Georgians came together to trade. They were known to cultivate rice as a food source. India also traded with Egypt for spices, which incidentally was what rice was called at the time. In fact, prior to this, rice was unknown to Egyptians and Hebrews, and the Romans even looked disfavorably upon it. We can assume that rice entered Egyptian medicinal and culinary arts through these trade practices. From here, rice was on the move. Although many cultures used it only for medicinal purposes, by the late medieval age it was also an ingredient in sweets in France and Italy, perhaps arriving there by way of the Crusaders who brought it back from the Holy Land. Venetian merchants, Arabs in Sicily and Aragonese in Naples may also be credited with the expansion of rice consumption during this period. What is interesting in this history of rice is how chance—or mischance—was transformative. The 14th century saw a series of events in Europe, including wars, grain and other food shortages, and most catastrophically, the Black Death. The plague swept across the continent, leaving destroyed communities in its wake. With dwindling food supplies and labor shortages, Italy decided it needed a hearty and sustainable crop to resurrect the agricultural industry and the dwindling population. Learning from the Chinese and other cultures, Italy realized that rice was the perfect crop and began to change the fortunes of the land and its people with its cultivation. Rice was so successful as a crop that it was dubbed the “Renaissance vegetable.” From here rice became a common staple in western culture.
Cheese is one of the oldest foods on earth, appearing before recorded history. Another ingredient in today’s recipe is akkawi or akawi cheese, a Middle Eastern cheese from Aka, the region where the cheese originated. This creamy cheese made from cow, goat or sheep’s milk is named after the city of Acre in North Israel, which in Arabic translates to Akka. The cheese called for in the recipe is Czech akawi, a popular and widely exported product made in the Czech Republic. Akawi is one of the many cheeses produced in this region. As with rice, it is a mysterious and divergent path that akawi cheese took to become so adaptable to different cultures.
Finally, rose water is a lovely ingredient, fragrant to smell and delicate to the taste. The rose predates human existence, going back 25 to 40 million years ago. The Babylonians cultivated roses as shown in cuneiform tablets and a rose is prominent in an Egyptian hieroglyphic from 1400 BCE. We also know that Cleopatra sprinkled rose petals in her bath. The Chinese, Greeks and Romans cultivated varieties of the flower and lavished their gardens with its fragrant blossoms. The Turkic people in the 11th century produced rose water for feasts and celebrations. And to Muslims, the rose is a symbol of Divine Beauty and of the Prophet Muhammad as seen in the expression “To smell a rose is a God-rewarded deed.” From these early civilizations rose water evolved to become in modern times widely used for food, medicinal and cosmetic purposes.
Why have we described the histories of these ingredients that together create this delicious dessert? Because this recipe is one small story that reflects the best of human endeavor—how through the ages, over continents and seas, people shared their knowledge and ingenuity to create something that embodies the sweetness of life. It is worth considering this grand achievement during this holy time.
*Recipe courtesy of Nestle Family.
- 400 grams of akawi cheese, Czech
- 1¼ cups of egyptian rice or 250 grams
- 3 cups of water
- 1 cup of sugar or 200 grams
- ½ cup of rose water
For the cream:
- 1 tin NESTLÉ® Sweetened Condensed Milk or 397 grams
- 3 cups of water
- ¾ cup of corn flour or 100 grams
- 2 tablespoons of rose water
- Slice the cheese and soak it in water at room temperature for 3 hours to remove the salt. Change the water every 10-15 minutes.
- Boil the rice with the 3 cups of water until it is completely cooked. Add the sugar and rose water and blend using electrical blender.
- Put the cheese in a bowl and melt it on double boil (bain-marie). Boil the rice mixture again and add the melted cheese to it while on fire, mixing constantly until well combined.
- To prepare the cream, mix all the cream ingredients and bring to boil on low heat, and then simmer for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Keep aside to cool down.
- Put the cheese mixture in individual cups or a large plate. Serve cold with the cream on top.