Bahraini artisans toil to preserve sugar-coated tradition

As Bahrainis celebrate Ramadan, the holy month is a period of appreciation for traditional sweets. PHOTO: REUTERS
A worker at the Saleh Radhi Al Halwachi sweet shop makes Bahraini saffron and cardamom cakes in Jid Hafs village, Bahraini on April 17, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

MANAMA (BAHRAIN) Bahrainis with a sweet tooth have long been spoilt for choice with a wide array of dessert franchises, but traditional confectioners still hold their ground, especially during Rama- dan.

At the back of his modest shop in the capital Manama, Mr Moha- mmed Gharib stirs a thick mixture of sugar, saffron and freshly blanched almonds, transforming it into a Bahraini version of the ubiquitous Middle Eastern dessert - halva.

"Bahrain became famous for its confectioneries by being a pioneer in this industry in the Gulf region," said Mr Gharib, adding that the popularity of the traditional sweets shops "continues until today".

Clad in 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 opened it in 1850.

"He was keen to develop this craft and passed it on to his children and grandchildren," said Mr Gharib.

As Bahrainis celebrate Ramadan along with the rest of the Muslim world, the holy month is a period of appreciation for traditional sweets.

For Mr Mohammed al-Fardan, the familiar Bahraini confections remain a fixture on tables for the iftar meal, in which the faithful break their dawn-to-dusk fast.

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

Though the Gulf region has been swept by a deluge of fast-food chains, Mr Fardan is quick to point out that "modern sweets contain preservatives, unlike traditional confectionery".

But while the preservation of heritage is at the heart of the confectioners' craft, they are not averse to innovating to appeal to a younger clientele.

Mr Saleh al-Halwaji, who works in his family-owned shop, said: "My father used to work in confectionery and I used to help him after school. Today, we work in the same field with our own children."

He said he "strives to evolve the sweets and keep up with the times while maintaining their popular character".

"We still make everything ourselves and perhaps that is what attracts so many of our customers, who come not only to buy sweets, but also to watch us make them behind the glass," he added.

Workers prepare Halwa at Hussain Showaiter Sweets at the Muharraq island store in northern Bahrain, on April 18, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Ms Dalal al-Shrouqi, an expert in Bahrain's popular heritage, said: "Today, technology helps us disseminate everything we want to preserve of our popular heritage by making it known to future generations".

Ms Shrouqi, who has written several books on her country's traditional cuisine, said that while innovative twists are popular, people still prefer "the sweets in their traditional form".

"Things evolve, but the original is still the basis," she added.

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