Maamoul: The Easter Sweet Loved by Muslims, Christians, and Jews

Experts debate the origin of the date- or nut-filled pastry, but Middle Eastern believers love the taste and the Good Friday symbolism in its shapes.

The Middle East’s favorite sweet symbolizes Good Friday.

Maamoul is a buttery cookie baked with semolina and stuffed with dates or nuts—usually walnuts or pistachios. Seasoned with a variety of spices, for centuries it has flavored the Easter holiday for Christians, the end of Ramadan for Muslims, and Purim for the Sephardic Jews of Jerusalem.

Three shapes are common: an elongated oval, a circular ring, and a rounded dome. Patterns are pressed into the dough by tweezer or with a traditional wooden mold, often in the shape of a sunburst and sometimes with a cross.

For Christians, the oval resembles the sponge given to Jesus to drink from. The ring, his crown of thorns. And the dome is shaped like his rock-hewn tomb, sealing its scented treasure within.

“Is that so?” asked Hoda Khoury, a Lebanese mother of three adult children, hard at work preparing the sweet. “That’s nice. That would make maamoul a Christian tradition.”

Not all believers know the deeper meaning.

Recipes vary, as do the names. Called kakh in Egypt, kleicha in Iraq, and kombe in southeast Turkey, experts have differing opinions on the cookie’s origin. Many find traces of Pharaonic or Mesopotamian beginnings, some suggesting the imprinted patterns reflect ancient worship of the sun.

Charles Perry, translator of the medieval Baghdad Cookery Book, says maamoul descends from the Persian kulachag, perhaps reflected in the Iraqi name today. Lebanese historian Charles El Hayek suggests the cookie may have originated in the Neolithic period but that the modern sharing of the sweet began in Fatimid Egypt (A.D. 909–1171).

Ultra-modern is the chocolate filling—promoted by Hershey’s Middle East.

But the tradition …

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