Bahraini artisans struggle to preserve sugar-coated tradition

Foodie Bahrainis have long been spoiled for choice with a wide array of dessert franchises, but mainstream confectioners still hold their own, especially during Ramadan.

Deep in his modest shop in the capital Manama, Mohammed Gharib brews a thick mixture of sugar, saffron and freshly blanched almonds, turning it into a uniquely Bahraini version of the ubiquitous Middle Eastern dessert: halva.

“Bahrain became famous for its confectionery by being a pioneer of this industry in the Gulf region,” Gharib told AFP, adding that the popularity of his establishments “continues to this day.”

Wearing Bahrain’s traditional ‘shemagh’ headdress and white ‘dishdasha’ robe, the 70-year-old runs one of the country’s oldest confectioneries, named after its founder Hussain Mohammed Showaiter, who founded it in 1850.

“Hussain Mohammed Showaiter was keen to develop this craft and passed it on to his children and grandchildren,” Gharib said.

As Bahrainis celebrate Ramadan with the rest of the Muslim world, the holy month is a time to appreciate traditional sweets.

For Mohammed al-Fardan, familiar Bahraini sweets remain a staple on the tables of the iftar meal, during which worshipers break their fast from dawn to dusk.

“Their presence is a reminder of Bahrain’s heritage and sense of hospitality,” said the 51-year-old banker.

Although the Gulf region has been swept by a deluge of fast-food chains, Fardan is quick to point out that “modern candy contains preservatives, unlike traditional confectionery.”

– ‘Main food’ –

But if the preservation of heritage is at the heart of the profession of pastry chefs, they do not hesitate to innovate to attract a younger clientele.

Saleh al-Halwaji, who works in the family shop, says: “My father worked in the confectionery and I helped him after school.

“Today we work in the same field with our own children,” he said.

Halwaji says he “strives to evolve the sweets and keep up with the times while maintaining their popular character.”

“We still make everything ourselves and maybe that’s what attracts so many of our customers, who come to buy sweets but also watch us make them behind the glass,” he said.

Dalal al-Shrouqi, a specialist in popular heritage from Bahrain, says that “today, technology helps us to spread all that we want to preserve from our popular heritage by making it known to future generations”.

Shrouqi, who has written several books on his country’s traditional cuisine, said that although the innovative twists are popular, people still prefer “sweets in their traditional form”.

“Things evolve, but the original remains the basis.”

Rachel J. Bradford