A Likely Story

Unlike the simplistic Bedouin or Berber lifestyles of most parts of Libya, Tripoli has always been a metropolis, a meeting point of cultures and a crossroad for trade. I can imagine the exotic sounds and smells of the souks in the Medina. Just looking at our pantry you’ll find turmeric from India, tea from China, cloves from Zanzibar. Women fragranced with musk, amber, orange blossom or rosewater would sprinkle these aromatic essences onto their sweets and beverages, making the ordinary extraordinary. Donning intricate silver and gold jewelry, they were inspired by these shapes to make exquisite pastries, such as dibla (ring) or diblaj (bracelet).  Only the purist staples will satisfy the demands of what is considered the best confectionary kitchen in the Maghreb: almonds, honey, flour, sugar, eggs, butter and essences. These form the basis of all Libyan desserts, all of them being pure and white.

Many stories have been told about the origins of amaretti or macaroons, some believable, others not as much so. It is generally agreed that the Arab Muslims brought sugar (suker) to the modern world; they first combined it with ground almonds to form fillings; later pounding them into marizipan (murtuban) and then discovered that beaten egg whites could be used as a raising agent long before chemical leavenings were invented. So it seems that the natural evolution would be the creation of macaroons, a light airy crisp yet chewy cookie made of almond meal, sugar and beaten egg whites. It is believed that these practices spread to the Europe through Sicily where amaretti, or little bitter ones – named after the use of bitter almonds or apricot kernels – came to be, as we know it today. The Moroccan ghraibat loz and Turkish acıbadem kurabiyesi are literal translations of this meaning.

Looking at the patisseries around the Mediterranean basin we notice that the Greeks and Turks are fond of walnuts, the Arabs of the Levant are partial to pistachios, and the delights of the Maghreb are chock full of almonds. The strong ties between Siciliy and North Africa, which brought them couscous, dried fruits and spices, was also the source for the sweet almond pastes used extensively in the Sicilian kitchen.

Before they came to be known as amaretti, the Italians called these biscuits maccerone (or macaroni as it is spelled in English) a term also used for pasta, and the source of the French word macaron. This was passed on to the Algerians who make macaroo.  The simplest way to trace the origin of an invention is to retrace the source of its name. Although there is some evidence that the root of the word maccerone is Arabic, it is still questionable.

Is the almond macaroon a Libyan delight or an Italian inheritance?

The curiosity in this case is the exclusive use of the name abambar in Tripoli, which apparently has no definition in Arabic dictionaries and has not spread to neighboring regions. On the contrary Tripolitanian abambar are highly esteemed and world renowned despite the great reputation of Italian bakers.  There is a general assumption among contemporary Tripolitanians that abambar is a tradition borrowed from the Italians, but ricotta, pizza, espresso, panetonne, gelato and so many other Italian legacies have retained their original name in the Libyan dialect, which makes me question the true origin of the Libyan abambar.

Our neighbors in Tunisia, also almond fanatics, make a ring cookie made with a nut paste stuffing and a macaroon based shell. They are called kaak anber as the almonds, sugar and egg white mixture are infused with amber essence (anbar). In Iran, a prized rice with a strong amber fragrance is called amber-boo.  There is a strong possibility that amber was also used in the original abambar recipes, making it the root of its name.

A painting of the Henna Kebira by Libyan artist Abdulmutalib Fhema. The bride is dressed in holi lahisra and is sitting on the bambar cushions.

Wednesday, the third day of the week long wedding ceremony, marks the Henna Kebira or Great Henna. The bride, dressed in white holi lahsira made of silk and silver threads, would sit on two large velvet cushions or a stool called bambar. It is customary to congratulate the bride “at her seat” – a’al bambar – where she would hand out almond confetti or macaroons. With time a’al bambar could have be shortened to abambar

There is still no strong evidence to support either case I make for abambar, but I’m sure that with time our poorly documented history will be retained, and the true story of abambar will come to light. Be it a local specialty or an Italian import, abambar will always be a part of our happy days.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Haitam says:

    Great thoughtful article and a serious work to solve our cultural puzzle

    1. Thank you for your relentless support and belief in me. x

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  2. KT says:

    Fascinating read – I love etymological puzzles

    1. Thanks Kate, I had fun trying to piece things together🙂

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  3. Fascinating piece – love learning about the history of different Middle Eastern specialties. Almonds aren’t super popular in Egyptian desserts, and I don’t think macaroons feature heavily there either – so I’m really intrigued by the idea that almond-based desserts have an origin in the Middle East. Keep the awesome posts comin’!😉

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