The Secret Behind a Beloved Palestinian Dessert

Mastic feels like stones between the fingers and turns pliant between the teeth — although “if you bite it, it cracks,” the French Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan says. Under a pestle, it crumbles into a shimmery dust. Stir this into liquid, and there’s a slight thickening, a sudden heaviness, verging on syrup. Kattan, a founder and owner of the restaurant Akub in London, likes to add ground mastic to the juices running off a roast to finish the meat in lush velvet. You must be judicious in measuring, he says, because the taste is subtle but strong: first a pang of bitterness; then cool, damp forest. “It’s an invitation to travel,” he said.

A thousand-year-old ingredient finds
a modern-day application.

One of the loveliest embodiments of this singular flavor-fragrance is his version of mouhalabieh, a delicate Arab milk pudding whose origins go back to the seventh century. Requirements are few: a pot of milk off the stove; a whisking-in of sugar; mastic, pounded down to powder; cornstarch, to help the pudding set; and vigilance. As an early recipe in the 10th-century Baghdadi cookbook “Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens” warns: “You should never stop stirring.” Kattan suggests tracing the number “8” with a wooden spoon over and over along the bottom of the pot, rotating it so no part of the surface goes untouched and always crossing back through the center, the hottest point, where the milk is most at risk of scorching. “It can be tricky at the end,” he says. “It goes from being quite liquid to quite solid in a few seconds.” When it’s near custard, pour the mixture, still hot, into individual bowls. Let rest an hour at room temperature, then another two or more in the refrigerator, until it wobbles.

From his childhood in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Kattan remembers his grandmother bringing mouhalabieh to the table in little green glass pots, topped with rosewater or orange-blossom syrup. For him, a dusting of broken pistachios is enough — a callback to the mastic tree. The pudding was one of the first desserts he served at his restaurant Fawda, opened in 2015, down a narrow alley in Bethlehem’s old city. He had to close it at the start of the pandemic but planned to reopen last December. Then came the attack by Hamas on Israel and Israel’s bombing and ground invasion of Gaza.

In Kattan’s cookbook, “Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food,” published in May, he writes of serving mouhalabieh with candied Jaffa oranges or red dates from Gaza. “We celebrate the land,” he tells me. But he fears that ingredients, and a whole culture, are disappearing. He asks, “Am I at the brink of becoming an archaeologist who can only tell sad stories?”

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