It’s the holy month of Ramadan and every Egyptian house is lit-up with Ramadan decorations and packed with special Ramadan desserts like Balah el Sham, Kunafah, Um Ali, and Zainab’s fingers.
But have you ever stopped to wonder who these desserts are named after and what their stories are?
Well, we’ve been wondering, too. Brace yourself, as some of these stories have a dark side to them.
Umm Ali: A Dessert Named After a Murderer
Umm Ali is a popular dessert that is said to have been named after the first wife of the Mamluk sultan Izz al-Din Aybak, who ruled Egypt in the thirteenth century. Umm Ali was the mother of al-Mansur Nur al-Din Ali and was known for her beauty and wit.
Legend has it that after the sultan’s death, his second wife, Shajarat al-Durr, and Umm Ali had a disagreement over whose son would rule the country.
Umm Ali plotted to kill Shajarat al-Durr and beat her with slippers until she died. To celebrate Shajarat al-Durr’s death, Umm Ali made a meal of flour, sugar, ghee, and chips and distributed it to everyone, which is why the dessert is named after her.
Zainab’s Fingers: A Dessert Named After a Heroine
Zainab’s fingers are a popular dessert that has two historical narratives behind it.
The first story dates back to when Zainab bint Al-Hussein bin Ali was just four years old. Her father was martyred in Karbala, and when they returned his body, Zainab rushed to embrace him and clung to him so tightly that even the soldiers of Muawiya bin Abi Sufyan were unable to separate her from his body. They were forced to strike her fingers with a sword to release her grip.
Since that day, Zainab’s fingers have been a symbol of harshness and cruelty, and the dessert was named after her in honor of her bravery and sacrifice.
The second narrative dates back to the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 AD, where after defeating the Mongols, the Muslims under the leadership of Al-Zahir Baybars returned to Egypt. Celebrations were held, and Prince Baybars ordered the making of sweets and their distribution to attendees to celebrate victory. Among the sweets offered were Zainab’s fingers, which attracted Baybars’ attention with their distinctive appearance and delicious taste.
A funny story explains the naming: Baybars liked the sweets and wanted to know their name. He asked the chief cook, who was embarrassed and thought the sweets didn’t satisfy Baybars or that their shape was ugly. The cook tried to justify the secret behind the shape of Zainab’s fingers, saying apologetically, “These are Zainab’s fingers,” referring to the cook who made the sweets and left fingerprints on them.
Baybars thought the sweets were called “Zainab’s fingers” and asked to meet Zainab. When Baybars met Zainab, a love strike took place, and he actually married her, and then she became Princess Zainab. Since then, Zainab’s name has been associated with the sweets she made, leaving fingerprints on them.
Azizeya – A Dessert Named after Love
Azizeya is a sweet dessert made with semolina, sugar, and nuts. The dessert’s origin story is a sweet one.
It is said that the dessert was created by a confectioner named Al-Sayed Mustafa, who was in love with a girl from his neighborhood named Aziza. When she agreed to marry him, he decided to name the new dessert after her. And thus, Azizeya was born.
Romoosh El-Set – A Dessert For the Patriarchy
Romoosh El-Set became famous initially in Iraq and the Levant, where it is one of the official sweets there, and it moved to Egypt through trade trips and mixing between Egypt and the Levant.
To name it by this name, there is a funny story, and the events date back to the days of the ruler Barbar Agha, the ruler of Tripoli, who was famous for holding parties and banquets where the town’s dignitaries gathered every night.
At one of the parties attended by many beautiful women from the upper class and a group of smart men, the cook presented them with that dessert in the form of “eyelash.”
One of the men exclaimed, saying to Barbar Agha, “Let’s call it Romoosh El-Set,” and indeed, the name has spread since then, and it was called Romoosh El-Set.