Most families have secret recipes but very few can claim to have been as successful as the Zalatimo families ‘mutabaq’. This week I added this sweet and savoury delight to my shortlist of ‘best food in Palestine’.
With several branches across East Jerusalem and beyond, the Zalatimo name is associated with their legendary sweets which have been sold in Jerusalem since the first branch opened in the Old City in 1860. My friend and neighbour grew up a Zalatimo girl and her brother and uncles run the branches in Shuafat and Beit Hanina today. There is also a shop in Ramallah and several branches in Jordan. Abeer told me that as a young girl she would often help out in her uncle’s shop in Wadi Joz. It was always part of the family heritage and remains important today.
Last week she took me to meet her brother who runs the Shuafat branch of the business. I had been to this area many times, but had never noticed the small doorway tucked around a corner with a few tables outside. Inside, the bakery was cosy and stylish with black walls, nice tiles and some artistic decorations. Great care had been taken to make it a welcoming space where people were happy to linger over their mutabaqs.
Sadly, that hadn’t been possible for much of the past year, and it was only a week previously that Mohammad had been able to re-open his doors and allow customers into the shop again. The lockdowns had greatly disrupted his business with sweets not being considered essential (I begged to differ!) and hefty police fines for anyone that breached the strict regulations. With a young family to support this hadn’t been easy.
There were a range of baklava type ‘oriental’ sweets on display, but the main speciality was the mutabaq. This recipe was developed by the founder Mohammad Zalatimo back in 1860 and had been impressing the Jerusalem crowds ever since. It consisted of thin pastry which was folded over salty white cheese before being covered in syrup and dusted with icing. It was reminiscent of knafeh but was much lighter and more attractive on the plate.
To watch Mohammad prepare that day’s fresh mutabaq, was to see a skilled artisan at work. He said that it took six hours before the dough was ready to use and that he made 100 fresh mutabaq each day. As we talked, he started squashing out the white circles of dough that he had made that morning and rolling them into a thin layer. He then quickly spun the dough, similar to a pizza chef but with greater effect, creating a huge wafer-thin white sheet that he stretched across the whole counter. This was then folded into a square shape and filled with the white cheese before being made into a parcel and put in the oven for seven minutes each. This process was to be repeated 100 times over the day.
Clearly this recipe was a labour of love, and although others might have attempted to replicate it, Mohammad said with a modest confidence that ‘others don’t have the patience that is needed and ours are the best’.
Just then, he delivered a hot and perfectly puffed up, plate of mutabaq to us. The pastry was crispy on the outside and as thin as the most delicate of French pastries. This lightness of touch gave it an elegance not usually found in Palestinian sweets. It was a perfect mix of both sweet and savoury and was a treat indeed, that I know I will return again for.
Sadly, the Old City branch of the business had closed in 2019 and its future is unclear. Abeer said it was a shame as ‘the oven there was really good, and the oven plays a role in the quality’. Mohammad explained that he worked in the shop from 9am till 11pm every day except Friday. He found it hard not seeing much of his young children, but it was clear that despite these antisocial hours that his passion lay in continuing the Zalatimo craft for sweet making.
Despite the challenges of doing business in East Jerusalem, I felt sure that this combination of skill and determination combined with a quality product would be a recipe for success for many years to come.
Follow this link to visit the Zalatimo bakery in Shuafat, open every day except Friday. The shop is tucked behind the main street.