One just can’t get enough when looking at the metal tins overflowing with baklava varieties, tiny and fashioned by the hand of an artist, lying next to one another at the Mustakah Pastry Shop in the western Galilee. The spectacular trays of white balloria, made with cashews and rosewater; of mini-borma (wrapped up in crispy kadayif, sprinkled with pistachios and dripping with the sweet syrup in which they were also dipped); bird’s nests; shfa’if (lips), and ‘ayun (eyes) – all these merge into a gorgeous mosaic of ornamental motifs characteristic of Middle Eastern art. A kilo of regular baklava costs 75 shekels (about $20) and a kilo of special baklava, which pastry chef Elias Merib calls baklava “shami” – Levantine – costs 110 shekels.
“The regular baklava types, which are usually a bit larger, have more dough and fewer costly nuts,” he explains. “The nuts in the baklava shami – the most highly regarded being pistachios and cashews – are always top quality. For the baklava shami, I use, for instance, only pistachios from Iran, imported to Israel through Turkey, with a vibrant green color that cannot be mistaken. Another major difference is the samna, the clarified butter we use to oil the tins and make the baklava. For regular baklava, other pastry shops normally use palm oil these days. For baklava shami, I use the dairy samna, clarified from cow’s milk, the price of which is triple that of vegetable oil. It lends the baklava a richer aroma and flavor.”
High-quality baklava, in contrast to the Western approach that “bigger is better,” is actually miniature baklava, which recall the delightful ornamentation of Islamic art and whose diminutive size is a function of their costly ingredients. In order to preserve baklava for longer periods of time, in accordance with ancient traditions that saw the confection as an elite status symbol and a desirable gift to be sent overseas – the excess syrup and sugar in which they were dipped was drained off and set aside.
In Turkey – the origin of baklava is a synthesis of central Asian pastry-making traditions using delicate layers of dough and the Arabic custom of dipping sweets in sugar syrup - these types are called baklava-koro. They are less sweet and have a crispier texture than fresh baklava soaked in sugar water. Anyone who used to buy the decorative boxes of baklava made by Semiramis and other highly regarded Damascene bakeries in Nazareth and other Israeli Arab cities (since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, they have become more difficult to obtain), will easily identify the shape and flavor of the prestigious baklava.
Elias Merib was born in 1984 in Rameh, an Arab village located between Acre and the Golan Heights, to Najaat and Youssef Merib, both of whom began their careers as teachers and are now the owners of bed-and-breakfast/Airbnb cottages and a restaurant called Sela Hanotrim (literally, Stone of the Guardians), which features local cuisine. They opened their home hospitality business in 1998.
“It wasn’t customary then for Jews to sleep in Arab communities,” says their son, who grew up in a home that was seeped in the cooking traditions of the local Arab kitchen. On the table of Najaat, the mother of the family and a talented cook, I once ate freekeh soup made from a stock of lamb broth, tiny stuffed grape leaves, musakhan (chicken roasted with onion and sumac on flatbread), lentils cooked with wild fennel, fatayer (a meat pie) filled with sorrel, and other traditional foods prepared with wild greens picked from among the ancient olive trees of the Beit Hakerem Valley.
“From a young age, I lived in the kitchen in every sense,” recalls Elias, who studied cooking at a college in Tiberias in 2001. “One day, my father called and said: ‘You won’t believe who is sitting with us at the kitchen table: Israel Aharoni, Tzachi Buchester and Daniel Zach.’ I left everything immediately and ran to meet them. Buchester told me, ‘When you finish your studies, come to me and I will help you find work in Tel Aviv.’ And that’s what actually happened.’ He set me up in the kitchen of Carmela B’Nahala and I was there for four years. I advanced, step by step, until I became Daniel Zach’s sous chef.”
The young chef subsequently went on to work at Isabella in Haifa, at a small Italian restaurant that opened in Kfar Vradim and at fast-food eateries in the food court in Yarka’s industrial park, among other places, and then arrived at chef Yosef “Zuzu” Hana’s Magdalena.
“It was actually at Magdalena, and especially after my two daughters were born, that I understood that it wasn’t for certain that I’d be able to continue in the very demanding restaurant business,” says Elias. “I wanted to pull back a bit and then I came up with the idea of this business – the business of preparing Middle Eastern sweets, but in a different style that would recall the famous pastry shops of Damascus, Amman and Istanbul. And, principally, with a different quality of raw ingredients, new designs and combinations.
“I come from a chef’s background, so I hope to try to use that to create new flavors and combinations. People have become accustomed to the flavor of sweet knafeh served with red food coloring, so I serve it that way – but along with the original version of knafeh as well, which is less sweet and without the food coloring, and pistachio knafeh, a traditional variation that is not commonly prepared in Israel.”
Orders can be placed in advance for baklava and bee-honey knafeh, one of the popular honeys in the region (along with fruit honey) before cane sugar replaced it as a popular modern ingredient.
The way to learn the art of preparing gem-like baklava, queen of Middle Eastern confections, passes through Nablus, Amman and Istanbul. Merib and his partner, attorney Nakhleh Sha’ar, opened this beautiful pastry shop in the Mi’ilya industrial park, last March. Merib and his wife Muna are responsible for the design, and Merib also built much of the furniture and display cases with his own hands.
The first part of the elongated narrow space of the shop and is filled with large, gorgeous trays of baklava and knafeh. In glass-fronted cabinets in the back part, closer to the kitchen where Merib works, sesame sweets and Turkish delight produced on site are usually displayed, but during this holiday season they are filled with Belgian chocolate sculptures of Santa Claus, reindeer sleighs and gift stockings. The shelves of the store are decorated, as elsewhere in the world, with branches from fir trees and twinkling red lights. The palpable ambiance of the holiday season is a pleasant reminder of the fact that the Christians living in the villages and towns of the Galilee (among them Nazareth, Rameh, Mi’ilya, Fassuta and Shfaram) have been holding charming Christmas markets in recent years and it’s worthwhile to remember to visit them next December.
Mustakah Sweets, Mi’ilya Industrial Park. Sun.-Sat. 10:00-22:00, 04-650170