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  • Kleicha: Gifts of Memory

    Kleicha are ready to be delivered in their gift boxes. Each year the family creates different packaging, which some recipients collect. Photo by Reem El Mutwalli

    Kleicha are ready to be delivered in their gift boxes. Each year the family creates different packaging, which some recipients collect. Photo by Reem El Mutwalli

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    “It’s a collection of memories, more than just a pastry, I think.”

    Born in Baghdad, Dr. Reem El Mutwalli arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1968 at the age of five. Her childhood coincided with the early days of the United Arab Emirates, which was founded in 1971. Today, Reem is a cultural heritage professional, designer, dress historian, and founder of The Zay Initiative, a nonprofit collection and digital archive of Arab dress.

    She carries on an ancient Iraqi food tradition from her kitchen in Dubai: kleicha, or date cookies. Fragrant with rosewater and nigella seed and stuffed with dates or nuts, kleicha speak to Iraqi heritage and holiday customs. In the El Mutwalli family, kleicha also tell the story of this multi-national, multi-generational, multi-faith household and the place they have made in their adopted country.

    To Reem, the pastry evokes layers of meaning and memory. “My mother, Buthaina Al Kadhi, baked kleicha for special occasions, especially during the last few days of Ramadan, to be enjoyed during Eid.”

    Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, ushers in joyous celebrations after thirty days of fasting and devotion. During Eid, Muslims visit friends and family members in their homes, exchanging blessings, gifts, and delicacies. Across the Arab world, families show hospitality by serving coffee and tea, dried dates, sweets, and plenty of food.

    “Kleicha are always, always made for Eid,” Reem explains. “Every Iraqi household will make them and serve them, each a little bit different from the other.”

    Since the 1970s, Buthaina’s kleicha have become renowned in Abu Dhabi. Reem began to send out the homemade pastries as gifts for Ramadan and Eid more than fifteen years ago. The tradition grew as more friends, relatives, and colleagues looked forward to her annual gifts, and Reem made larger and larger batches—up to 500 kilos, or about 1,100 pounds—with the help of her entire household.

    “I wanted to have something that ties me to Iraq,” she says. “I never lived in Iraq—I don’t have any recollection of Iraq. Yet I grew up hearing my parents’ memories. So I wanted to give something that is associated with that heritage, something that cannot be bought in local shops.”

    Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan greets a young Reem El Mutwalli in a black-and-white family photo
    Reem El Mutwalli is welcomed to Abu Dhabi in 1968 by its ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1918-2004), who would go on to found the United Arab Emirates. Reem remembers him coming forward, “like a falcon, white robes flowing in the wind.”
    Photo courtesy of Reem El Mutwalli
    Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan greets Dr. Tariq El Mutwalli, Reem’s father, in a black-and-white family photo
    Tariq El Mutwalli, left, is greeted by Sheikh Zayed, right, on his arrival in Abu Dhabi.
    Photo courtesy of Reem El Mutwalli

    She continues, “To me, the idea of Iraq is a tribute to my mother and an homage to my father. We gave away kleicha on the fortieth day after my father passed away a few years ago, for people to remember him, to say a small prayer and think of him, and to celebrate his life on that day. We also make kleicha to remember those who have left us.”

    Reem’s late father, Dr. Tariq El Mutwalli, moved his family to Abu Dhabi in 1968 to serve as economic advisor to Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, now the president of the UAE. Reem remembers, “He brought his two brothers Ghanim and Sabah and their families, and then other relatives, eventually uprooting and re-rooting more than sixty-five members of the El Mutwalli clan from Baghdad to the UAE to make their home.”

    Kleicha is a deeply traditional treat, reaching back to ancient Babylonia. It features the fruit of the date palm, one of the earliest cultivated trees and the foundation of the region’s foodways. Iraqis of many ethnicities and religions enjoy kleicha on their special occasions; families pass down their secret recipes.

    “In our family, my mother passed her kleicha down to my daughter, Mae, and to Aida Roncales Tenedero, our long-time housekeeper, who came from the Philippines to live with us when Mae was born,” Reem explains. “Over the years Aida has taught Mae, as well as other household staff, how to make kleicha. And Aida has added her own creativity to the preparation.

    Buthaina and Aida work by eye and taste, rather than written recipes, to make the bite-sized pastries. Buthaina is the expert on the authentic flavor and appearance: “It is my mother who has a great influence on how we make it and if it tastes good or not, if it has enough rosewater, it has enough sugar, it’s too crispy, it’s too fluffy,” Reem says. “She’s the one who decides on all that.”

    The El Mutwalli household prepare to make kleicha
    (From right) Mae, Buthaina, Dalia, and Aida lay out ingredients for the four types of kleicha the family makes.
    Photo by Reem El Mutwalli

    Aida oversees the baking process: preparing the date, pistachio, and walnut fillings, measuring cardamom and rosewater, kneading the dough, forming the pastries, and baking them to perfection. Next, Reem and Cristeta Ardenio, known as Dalia, fill the gift boxes. Each year, Reem surprises people with a new presentation for the kleicha.

    As Buthaina, Aida, and Mae work closely together in the kitchen alongside Josie Capistrano Velasco and Violeta Dela Cruz, the family’s culinary knowledge passes between generations and across cultures, enriched with Iraqi, Filipino, and UAE experiences. The members of this household, both Muslim and Christian, are part of the large majority of UAE residents of other nationalities. Together they carry forward the kleicha tradition in their adopted home.

    In 2020, due to COVID-19 precautions, Reem did not send out kleicha gifts. However, the family agreed to collaborate with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival team, bringing a new dimension to the tradition: for the first time, the secret of Buthaina’s recipe and Aida’s techniques have been written down and can now circulate around the globe. Of the exchanges between Aida and our foodways coordinator Kathy Phung that led to the recipe, Reem says, “I was very surprised that you managed to make kleicha out of the recipe, because usually Aida doesn’t tell people how she makes them!”

    Like Reem, Mae links the kleicha tradition with strong family ties. “In my mind, it coincides with Ramadan, a time when the family gathers every night,” she reflects. “This time makes you reflect on what you have and feel grateful for those memories. It’s a feeling of being at home. Even the smell of kleicha baking, the scent of rosewater, gives the whole house a nostalgic feeling.”

    As Reem and her family grow their kleicha-giving practice in the UAE, Iraqi cultural heritage and intimate family memories merge with multi-national experiences to continue and recreate the culinary tradition.

    Michele Bambling and Rebecca Fenton are curators of the United Arab Emirates program for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

    Two bulls full of kleicha cookies: made by the El Mutwalli household on the left, and made by Folklife Festival foodways coordinator Kathy Phung on the right
    Aida’s and Kathy’s cookies side by side. Not bad at all, Kathy!
    Photos by Reem El Mutwalli and Kathy Phung

    Recipe: The El Mutwalli Family Kleicha

    Recipe by Aida Roncales Tenedero, adapted by Kathy Phung

    Notes from the test kitchen: You need one batch of dough per filling, but each batch of dough yields from 28 to 50 cookies, depending on the shape and size. The shapes of the cookies are suggestions to differentiate them from each other. Kleicha can be easily frozen and reheated in an oven or toaster oven to enjoy later.

    Ingredients

    Dough
    3 cups all-purpose flour
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1 teaspoon yeast
    1 teaspoon ground cardamom
    1 egg
    1/2 cup melted butter
    1/2 cup neutral oil
    3/4 cup water

    Date Filling
    2 tablespoons neutral oil
    1 kilo (2.2 pounds) dates, pitted
    1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

    Pistachio Filling
    200 grams (7 ounces) raw pistachio, finely ground
    3/4 teaspoon rosewater, or to taste
    1 1/2 teaspoon sugar, or to taste

    Walnut Filling
    200 grams (7 ounces) raw walnuts, finely ground
    3/4 teaspoon rosewater, or to taste
    1 1/2 teaspoon sugar, or to taste

    Savory Cheese Kleicha
    3 cups all-purpose flour
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1 teaspoon yeast
    1 egg
    1/2 cup melted butter
    1/4 cup neutral oil
    3/4 cup water
    200 grams (7 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese
    200 grams (7 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese
    1 cup sesame seeds

    2 whole eggs, beaten, for glaze

    Preparation

    Dough:
    In a medium mixing bowl, mix the flour, salt, yeast, ground cardamom, egg, melted butter, oil, and water into a soft dough. Cover and let rest for thirty minutes.

    Date filling:
    Place pitted dates, oil, and cardamom into a small pot over low heat. Heat the dates just enough to help with the mashing; the dates should not cook. Remove from heat and continue to mash with a masher or your hands until a smooth paste forms. While still warm, place date paste in a large plastic food storage bag, or between two sheets of parchment paper, and roll into a thin sheet.

    Pistachio and walnut fillings:
    Using a food processor, grind pistachios until fine. Add sugar and rosewater and mix well. Set aside. Repeat the process with walnuts.

    Date kleicha:
    Take a softball-size piece of dough and roll out to into a large, thin rectangle. Slice ribbons of date filling approximately 1 inch thick. Place one ribbon of date filling along the long edge of the dough, adding more date filling as needed. Gently fold the edge and paste over itself. Repeat by placing another length of date filling on top of the folded edge, and fold over once more. (Watch the video at top to see the El Mutwalli rolling technique.) Cut the dough approximately 1 inch from the filled portion, and fold the dough over once more. Trim the edges of the log, then cut the cookies into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Place cookies on a parchment-lined sheet tray and brush with egg yolk.

    Bake in a preheated 375°F oven for 15 to 18 minutes, or until golden brown.

    Pistachio kleicha:
    Take half-a-tablespoon piece of dough and roll into a small ball. Flatten into your palm, and fill with a scant teaspoon of pistachio filling. Pinch the edges close and roll into a smooth ball. Place cookies on a prepared sheet tray and continue like date cookies.

    Walnut kleicha:
    Take a tablespoon piece of dough and roll into a small ball. Flatten into your palm and fill with a rounded teaspoon of walnut filing. Fold edges together into a half moon, and crimp the edges closed with your fingers or a fork. Place cookies on a prepared sheet tray and continue like date cookies.

    Savory kleicha:
    In a medium mixing bowl, mix the flour, salt, yeast, egg, cheese, melted butter, oil, and water into a soft dough. Cover and let rest for thirty minutes. Roll out into a sheet about 1/4-inch thick and cut to desired size with a round cutter or cutter of choice. Place on a prepared sheet tray, brush with egg yolks, and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

    Bake in a pre-heated 375°F oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown.

    Severl Ziploc bags full of date kleicha
    Photo by Kathy Phung

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